This paper was published in Gender and Psychoanalysis (1999) Volume 4:253-289. Note that this paper was written in 1999 and does not refer to later movies (such as Mystic River) that deal with boyhood sexual victimization.
In the outpouring of books and papers on childhood sexual abuse that have appeared since 1980, the emphasis has nearly always been on sexually abused girls and their reactions to the abuse as women. This focus on women misleadingly implies that the occurrence of sexual abuse among boys is rare. But, as Holmes and Slap (1998) conclude, “the sexual abuse of boys is common, underreported, underrecognized, and undertreated” (p. 1860). Approximately one in six boys experiences direct sexual contact with an adult or older child by age 16 (Urquiza and Keating, 1990; Lisak, Hopper, and Song, 1996).
I have elsewhere (Gartner, 1999; see also Gartner, 1994, 1996a, 1996b, 1997a, 1997b, in press a,b) addressed a number of issues related to the sexual abuse of boys and its aftermath as boys become men. These include the definition of sexually abusive situations for boys; the social isolation and shame that sexually abused men often experience; the effects of masculine gender socialization on processing boyhood sexual abuse; the likelihood that boys will encode their sexual activity (especially with women) as a benign introduction to adult sexuality; the meaning and aftereffects of same-sex molestation for boys; the impact of boyhood sexual abuse on adult sexual and other intimate relationships; the benefits of same-sex group therapy for sexually abused men; and the intense transference/countertransference interplay in the treatment of these men. In this article, I will focus on how sexual behavior between boys and adults is depicted in film, emphasizing the influence such representations have on how sexual abuse is viewed both by its victims and by those who hear about it.
As boys mature, they frequently consider sexual abuse as a coming-of-age experience, especially if the abuser is the same sex as the boy’s predominant object choice (women for heterosexual boys and men for homosexual boys). I have demonstrated elsewhere that “[i]f boys have premature sexual experiences, especially with girls and women, they are thought to be ‘sexually initiated,’ not molested. . . . They thus often come to think of themselves, at least consciously, as fortunate rather than as exploited in these sexual encounters. . . . If they do not welcome sexuality with women, they feel deviant, and may expect others to see them that way, too” (Gartner, 1999, p. 42). By contrast, straight boys frequently find same-sex victimization shameful and are unwilling or unable to talk about it. Gay boys, conversely, often have deeply conflicted feelings about sexual abuse by a woman.
In addition, “[c]ultural concepts and expectations about men and masculinity generate uncertainty about his manhood if a man cannot live up to them…. [P]revailing myths [dictate] that victimhood is the province of women and that men cannot be victims. A man who has been victimized, therefore, must often combat an inner conviction that his victimization is a sign that he is not male” (Gartner, 1999, p. 59). Thus, boys have multiple motivations for not encoding premature sexual encounters as either abusive or traumatic. This makes it difficult to judge whether a specific experience was indeed benign rather than traumatizing.
Popular culture simultaneously reflects and influences such societal beliefs. Depictions in popular media of such diverse phenomena as race relations, adult rape, police tactics, capital punishment, gender role, and legal ethics all convey the attitudes of society at the time they appear. But they may also serve to strengthen those attitudes, or, over time, to reflect changes in them. Audiences find their own beliefs and prejudices supported and consolidated. Alternatively, they can be exposed to new ideas that have slowly begun to enter the culture. In disseminating such new attitudes, the media serve as potent influences and agents of change in popular opinion.
Film is arguably foremost among the popular media that both guide and reflect cultural mores. Because movies from both contemporary and earlier periods are readily available through video rentals, I will focus on film in my discussion of media depiction of male sexual victimization, particularly victimization of boys. (Note, however, that television, books, and magazines, also influence as well as reveal societal positions on this and other public issues.)
How have movies portrayed forced, incestuous, or inappropriate sexual relations with underage boys? The films I discuss demonstrate how deeply ingrained in our culture is the expectation that boys will encode early sexual behavior with women as pleasurable initiations. By contrast, sexual behavior between boys and men is portrayed as shameful in the movies, something to be hushed up or, perhaps, revenged. Together, these characterizations reinforce and perpetuate attitudes toward sexual victimization that make it difficult for boys to process and heal from traumatic experiences.
In this article, I will demonstrate that filmmakers virtually always portray premature sexual behavior with a woman as basically positive and with a man as negative and shameful (a very few exceptions to each of these rules are noted). This is true whether the sexual situation is portrayed as humiliation, incest, molestation, sexual initiation, or rape.
“…the films he surveys do not show a recovery process for abused men, and, in most cases, do not convey that there is anything from which to recover…”
In one previous survey, Trivelpiece (1990; see also Mendel, 1995) found support for the premise that “insensitive cinematic portrayals of the sexual abuse of men and boys establish negative stereotypes of male characterological and behavioral responses to abuse. These negative stereotypes may influence attitudes and perceptions of real-life men who are survivors of rape and childhood sexual abuse” (p. 47). Trivelpiece contrasts depictions of male sexual victimization with those in films where women are victims. He concludes that, collectively, the films he surveys do not show a recovery process for abused men, and, in most cases, do not convey that there is anything from which to recover. Adolescent boys who are not yet sexually active are frequently seen as unlikeable objects of scorn, and sometimes the abuse of boys and men is portrayed as comic. In many cases, the films show the victim having a positive response to the abuse, particularly when there is sex between a teenage boy and an adult woman. In addition, he points out, victims are often portrayed as having no negative emotional reaction to their abuse. If such reactions are conveyed, they are either distorted or understated, rarely having the patterns that the clinical literature suggests are common. Male victims who are affected by abuse are frequently depicted as exhibiting antisocial behavior as adults and as being at risk for becoming homosexual, two stereotypes that are damaging to boys and men attempting to come to terms with abuse histories. But, tellingly, most often if these movies depict the boys “later in life as troubled individuals [they] give no indication that their abusive childhood sexual experiences may be related to their dysfunction as adults” (Trivelpiece, 1990, p. 53).
I do not try in this review to comment except in passing on the overall quality of the movies I discuss. Many of them are aesthetically very fine films and became cinematic icons when they were first exhibited. Several were considered daring because of the sexual relationships involved. In some, sexual betrayal is clearly stated and central to the plot, while in others it is conveyed obliquely or is peripheral to the main story line. Similarly, in some cases the behavior itself is overt, involving intercourse or other frankly sexual acts, while in others it is more subtle and is suggested rather than openly represented. I have not concentrated on movies where covert sexuality and eroticized relationships with underage boys are portrayed, although many such films do, of course, exist. They could form the basis for another discussion, but I am interested here in how societal views of open sexual betrayal of boys are disseminated through film.
Sexual Initiation of Boys by Women in Film
Film, like all popular literature, is replete with examples of so-called coming-of-age stories in which boys are introduced to sexuality by older women. This is often seen in a positive light, as a sexual initiation of an adolescent into manhood by an experienced, caring, and/or attractive older woman. Any long-term negative consequences for the boy of sexual behavior with an older woman are ignored or minimized.
Several films include sexual initiation by prostitutes and strippers, women whose sexuality is both objectified and prized. In most cases, these sexual encounters are seen as healthy gateways to manhood. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), the forerunner of the “blaxploitation” films of the 1970s, has an early scene in which the hero as a boy is initiated into sex in a bordello. We are to understand this experience as an example of his exaggerated male prowess. All That Jazz (1979) is the story of a famed choreographer whose compulsive womanizing, alcoholism, amphetamine addiction, chain smoking, and workaholism all lead him to a series of heart attacks. In a flashback, we see him as a teenage dancer working burlesque houses. His mother tells us he hardly noticed the strippers, but we see him surrounded by their nearly naked bodies as they tease him and offer him easy sex. At one point, he is masturbated by these strippers just before going on stage to dance, and his performance ends in ridiculing laughter as the patrons see the wet semen stains on his white pants. The implications of his overstimulating early experiences are ambiguous. As an adult, he is attractive to women, loves being with them, and is cherished and adored by them. On the other hand, he is totally unable to stay with any of the women he loves, including his daughter, and his ultimately compulsive behavior contributes to his early death from heart disease. A Cold Wind in August (1961) also depicts the relationship between a stripper and a teenage boy: in this case their affair is the central plot. He is handsome but callow, and at the end we feel sympathetic to the aging stripper, whose love he thoughtlessly discards.
Risky Business (1983) is a comedy that takes to its logical extreme the theme that sex with an older woman is always an adolescent boy’s most erotic fantasy, again using a prostitute to initiate a boy into sex. In it, a seemingly well-behaved 17-year-old boy uses his parents’ absence from home as license to break out in many ways. Among his exploits, he hires a prostitute who teaches him about sex and other adult pleasures. Private Lessons (1981) is basically a soft-core porn movie with a similar motif, though the woman is a housekeeper, not a prostitute. More serious films in which the plot has incidental seductions or attempted seductions of very young men by older women include A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, 1995), Peter’s Friends (1992), and The Quick and the Dead (1994).
I will now discuss five well-known movies in which the older woman/younger boy or very young man scenario forms a central part of the plot: Tea and Sympathy (1956), The Graduate (1967), Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Picture Show (1971), and Summer of ‘42 (1971).
In Tea and Sympathy, a play by Robert Anderson before it became a movie, Tom, a sensitive young student in a boys’ boarding school, begins to question his sexual identity after being subject to the scorn of classmates who believe he is a sissy and presumably gay. There are a series of scenes in which his love of poetry and classical music, his willingness to play a female role in a play, his long hair, ability to sew, manner of walking and talking, even his style of championship tennis playing, are all ridiculed by students and some teachers who take every opportunity to demonstrate their own swaggering “masculinity.” Called “Sister Boy” by his classmates, he is scapegoated, tormented, and driven to desperate means to prove he is manly and heterosexual. His father wants at all costs for him to stand up to his tormentors, and is disgusted by his son’s perceived effeminacy. Tea and Sympathy thus argues forcefully against common socialized masculine gender ideals. In doing so, however, it reinforces the stereotypes commonly expressed at the time it was written that same-sex orientation is shameful and a sign of psychological disturbance. At no point is homosexuality remotely considered a legitimate and healthy way of relating intimately (Russo, 1987).
Sympathetic roommate suggests that he have a “date” with the town tramp, a gossip who will certainly tell everyone the next day that he “proved” his masculinity with her through having sex. Laura tries to stop Tom from going on this date, and in this scene Tom attempts to kiss her. When she retreats from the kiss, he bolts from the room and goes on his date, where, unable to perform sexually, he attempts suicide with a kitchen knife. He is stopped from killing himself but is expelled for going out after hours to the woman’s apartment. Tom’s father is initially overjoyed when he thinks Tom got in trouble because he proved his manhood through sex with a woman, but is stricken and contemptuous when he discovers Tom could not complete the sex act.
Meanwhile, Laura and her husband are revealed to have serious marital difficulties. She asks him why they “rarely touch any more.” Although she wants to preserve her marriage, she wants a man who is more emotionally sensitive and expressive than her husband, who is jealous of Laura’s interest in Tom. She points out, “I gave him the affection you didn’t want and wouldn’t have.” She acknowledges a desire to give Tom a sexual experience that would quell his doubts about his manhood. She accuses her husband of needing “a scapegoat to reaffirm your shaky position” about being a man.
Later, Laura discovers that Tom has run away, leaving a suicide note, and she finds him in the woods. She tries to convince him that he is indeed manly, but he says he will never again try to be sexual with a woman. After a brief inner struggle, she kisses him and this leads to a sexual experience that will presumably consolidate his identity as a man. It is implied that Laura is doing him a great service, perhaps even making a sacrifice to save him. There is certainly no hint that sexual abuse of a minor by an adult is involved. In the play upon which the movie is based, Laura has a famous curtain line that in the movie version she says before the two make love: “Years from now, when you talk about this — and you will — please be kind.”
The movie is much vaguer than the original play about the accusations of homosexuality, and focuses instead on Tom’s effeminacy. In addition, it contains an odd addition, apparently written at the insistence of the Breen office, the Hollywood censors responsible for safeguarding the moral tone in movies, and the Catholic Legion of Decency (Russo, 1987). They would not permit a story line in which homosexuality was mentioned explicitly or adultery seemed to be encouraged, although they apparently were willing to allow the movie to show a sexual relationship between an adult woman and a schoolboy. Because of their concerns, the movie is framed by a flashback from Tom’s ten year school reunion. At the reunion, Tom finds a letter from Laura, who separated from her husband immediately following her liaison with Tom. She wrote the letter after reading a novel Tom subsequently wrote about their relationship. Tom has been indeed “kind” in conveying what happened between them in a positive light, and she thanks him, but says he portrayed her as too “saintly.” She wishes Tom well in his marriage, thus telegraphing to the audience that he is indeed not gay and implying that perhaps she did save his life by having a sexual relationship with him. She goes on, however, to say she was wrong to ignore her husband’s needs for her, which were as great as Tom’s, and that the husband suffered over the years because of her actions. There is no suggestion that Laura did wrong to engage in sex with a high school boy.
It is implied in Tea and Sympathy that “real” men, in addition to always welcoming sex with women, are likely to scorn the women who allow them sexual favors. Listen again to Laura’s line before they make love: “Years from now, when you talk about this — and you will — please be kind” (emphasis added). She thus suggests that he will become a man and, like all men, will then boast of his youthful sexual initiation. There is no sense that he will consider that she has been sexually abusive or even inappropriate with him, but she does expect him to be abusive (“unkind”) to her as he retells their story.
In The Graduate, a dark comedy, Benjamin, a recent college graduate, is not actually underage, but his erotic, tortured affair with Mrs. Robinson, the bored wife of his father’s business partner, has the emotional impact of a molestation of an adolescent by an older, more powerful mother-substitute. Her more dominant position is underlined by her remaining “Mrs. Robinson” to him, even when they are having an affair, while he remains “Benjamin” to her. She blatantly and singlemindedly sets out to seduce him. When he says so (“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me!”), she dismisses his accusation while furthering the seduction and then blaming him for it: “Would you like me to seduce you? Is that what you’re saying?” When they are interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Robinson, Mrs. Robinson urgently tells Benjamin that he should telephone her and they can “make some kind of arrangement.” Benjamin is confused but obviously excited and aroused by Mrs. Robinson. He does call and makes a date. When he tries to stop their liaison before it is consummated, she pushes him to complete the sex act by pointedly suggesting he is an “inadequate,” inexperienced lover. Throughout their relationship, it is clear that Mrs. Robinson is only interested in Benjamin for sex. When he asks if they can converse, she tells him they do not have much to say to one another.
“What happens when we reverse the sex of the participants? …I believe the issue of abuse would have arisen much more clearly than it did in reactions to the films as written.”
The relationship is waning when Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, comes home and Benjamin’s parents press him to ask her out. In the ensuing complications, Benjamin and Elaine fall in love. Mrs. Robinson is viciously determined that Benjamin not get involved with her daughter, eventually accusing him of rape. At the end, Benjamin interrupts Elaine’s hastily scheduled wedding to another man, and the two flee together, leaving the “adults” behind. In the final frames, they look at each other on the bus they have taken, she still in her wedding dress, and seem to have no any idea about what will come next in their lives.
Harold and Maude is an eccentric comedy about the relationship between Maude, an 79-year-old woman, and a young man. Harold is of indeterminate age, since he looks fifteen or even younger, but he drives a car, seems to be out of high school, and is eventually pressed by his mother to marry. His preoccupation with death and suicide is compellingly conveyed through blackly humorous scenes of staged suicide attempts and attendance at funerals of people he did not know. Maude, on the other hand, despite her age and commitment to dying at the age of 80, is full of zest, passion, and enthusiasm for life. Their story is erotic in the literal sense of the word; it is about how eros (life) is transmitted from Maude to Harold. Nevertheless, a mostly understated sexual component is present. They dance, there is a scene in which they wake up in bed, and Harold decides to marry Maude. At the end, Maude has serenely committed suicide on her eightieth birthday. Harold, while grief-stricken, has been transformed from his former melancholy, joyless state into an animated, alive young man. The film is hyperbolic rather than realistic in tone, and its message is that his unconventional relationship with Maude saves Harold’s life.
The Last Picture Show follows Sonny and Duane, two teenage boys in their senior year of high school in a dusty, rundown Texas town. In one of the major story lines, Sonny begins an affair with Ruth, the 40 year old wife of his football coach. Ignored by her husband, desperately unhappy, looking pinched and old, Ruth has been spending her time going to doctors for various ailments. At the coach’s request, Sonny drives her to one of these appointments. Ruth is tearful afterwards, and slowly she and Sonny draw closer to one another. Sonny is eager for the sex Ruth seems to offer him, and in a short time they become lovers. While he refers to her as an old lady when talking to his friends, he seems to care for Ruth, at least up to a point. As the months go on, Ruth blossoms, beginning to look younger and far prettier than before. The depth of her feeling for Sonny is apparent. The two joke about how the coach would shoot them both if he discovered their affair, but they do not seem very worried.
Most of the people in the tiny town know about their liaison and seem to accept it. However, Duane’s former girl friend, a spoiled and selfish beauty, learns of the affair from her mother. Momentarily unattached and bored, she is outraged because Sonny had always wanted to be her boyfriend, and she sets out to seduce him. She succeeds easily, and Sonny does not show up for his next rendezvous with Ruth, who is distraught and crushed. He never contacts her, and does not allow her to visit when he is hospitalized following a fight with Duane over the girl they both want. Sonny only returns to Ruth after the hit-and-run death of a retarded boy he had cared about. At first, Ruth rages at Sonny for never having contacted her, even to break things off, and tells him he would have abandoned the retarded boy just as he abandoned her. As she sees his pain, however, she allows him to hold her hand, and the implication is that they may begin their affair again.
Summer of ‘42 is a bittersweet, nostalgia-drenched coming-of-age movie, a memory story about a 15-year-old boy, Hermie, and his introduction to sex. The first part of the movie concerns Hermie and his two buddies as they explore the world of adolescent sexual awakening while summering with their families at the seashore. In this section, Hermie has a crush on Dorothy, a beautiful war bride in her twenties who lives in a house by the beach. He sees her with her husband while the husband is on leave, and, awestruck, finds ways to meet her and strike up an acquaintance. There are comic moments as he tries to sound grown-up and sophisticated, while she accepts his attentions in an appropriately grave manner, treating him seriously as a person, but not in any way as a suitor. These scenes are juxtaposed with other humorous scenes in which Hermie and his friends try to understand what happens during sex. They discuss how to feel a girl’s breasts, and there is an extended farcical scene in which Hermie works up the courage to buy condoms in a drugstore. The boys meet up with girls their own age, and Hermie’s best friend “scores” with one, to his own surprise.
Meanwhile, Hermie continues his infatuation with Dorothy, egged on by his best friend. He drops by her house one night and finds her grief stricken at the news that her husband has been killed in action. In this last part of the film, Dorothy clings to Hermie for comfort. As the scene slowly and seemingly without intention becomes erotic, she wordlessly invites him to her bedroom. Tears streaming down their faces, they make love, clearly to give her solace. In addition, of course, Hermie is introduced to the adult sexuality he and his friends have been trying to understand throughout the movie. Quite implausibly, Hermie, though frightened, is a far more tender and able lover than anyone might think after an earlier scene in which we see him with a girl his own age, putting his arm around her in a movie theater and awkwardly attempting to touch her breasts — to succeed only in cupping her shoulder.
After Hermie and Dorothy make love, no words are exchanged except for goodbye. When Hermie returns the next day, Dorothy has gone. She leaves him a sensitive note that simultaneously thanks him, makes it clear this night will never be repeated, wishes him well, and says that some day he will grow to understand what happened. Hermie never sees her again or hears what happened to her.
Lushly scored by Michel Legrand, the movie presents the sexuality as sweet, touching, and understandable under the circumstances. Dorothy’s good-natured understanding of Hermie’s adolescent crush and his sensitivity to her needs when her husband is killed are idyllically portrayed. Conveniently, they never have to face one another after their sexual encounter. There is no sense of trauma, and we assume he is a better person for this experience. Yet, the movie begins and ends with voiceovers that give pause to a careful listener. At the beginning, Hermie as a man says, “Nothing, from that first day I saw her, and no one that has happened to me since, has ever been as frightening and as confusing. For no person I’ve ever known has ever done more to make me feel more sure, more insecure, more important, and less significant.” And, as the movie closes, he says, “For everything we take with us, there is something we leave behind. In the summer of ‘42 . . . , in a very special way, I lost Hermie forever.” These voiceovers subtly suggest that Hermie’s childhood ended prematurely, and that the relationship with Dorothy in some way may have stopped him from other, more mature and mutual relationships with women. Nevertheless, the tender romanticism of the story leaves the viewer with the sense that Hermie was a lucky boy, and that Dorothy was fortunate to have had him to turn to in her grief.
It can be argued that in all these films the boy was having consensual sex with the older woman. Is this true or is it merely a sexist assumption about boys and men always welcoming sex when it is offered, especially by a woman? What happens when we reverse the sex of the participants? Imagine for a moment the audience’s reaction to these story lines: A teacher’s husband seduces a sexually uncertain high school girl in Tea and Sympathy. A middle-aged, married Mr. Robinson sexually exploits the newly graduated daughter of his close friend and business partner in The Graduate. A dying eighty-year-old man has a final, life-affirming erotic encounter with a teenage girl in Harold and Maude. A middle-aged, lonely high school coach has an affair with a high school girl in The Last Picture Show. An older married man hears of his wife’s sudden death and turns to a 15-year-old girl for sexual comfort and solace in Summer of ‘42. Had these been the story lines, I believe the issue of abuse would have arisen much more clearly than it did in reactions to the films as written.
Additionally, in none of the films except The Graduate is the woman portrayed as exploiting the boy. Instead, they seem to be loving, concerned, and even self-sacrificing (Tea and Sympathy), or lonely and emotionally vulnerable (Summer of ‘42 and The Last Picture Show), or even saving the boy’s psychological life (Tea and Sympathy and Harold and Maude). The relationship with the older woman is portrayed as basically positive for the boy or young man involved, particularly with regard to his developing sexuality. Even in The Graduate, Mrs. Robinson is a mesmerizing siren who, while selfish and vindictive, offers Benjamin an exciting introduction to sexuality.
Yet, if we consider their situations, each of the women is needy and has a personal agenda that influences her decision to have sex with the boy. The women in Tea and Sympathy, The Graduate, and The Last Picture Show have shaky marriages and/or feel neglected and unappreciated. The woman in Summer of ‘42 uses the boy for solace in her grief over her husband’s death. While Maude in Harold and Maude seems to be altruistic in relation to Harold, we can think of her as wanting to share her final days with a young man and perhaps attain a kind of immortality by passing her zest for life on to him. These situations are all exploitative to the extent that the women are satisfying their own needs without a considered regard for the possible negative impact of their actions on the boys involved. This will be even clearer in my discussion of maternal incest in the next section.
But even if we accept the premise of each individual film that in the particular situation being portrayed there was no abuse involved, we must also consider the overall effect of film after film in which sex between a boy and an older woman is seen as positive for him. There is no model for a boy in such a situation to feel it is acceptable not to welcome, enjoy, and get pleasure from the relationship. This is the crucial point here: portrayals in this popular medium only support the idea that boys are happy to be offered sex with older women, and never endorse the view that such situations are or can be sexual betrayals.
Maternal Incest in Film
Virtually all films portraying incest involve a boy and a female relative, whether she is a mother (Fists in the Pocket, 1965; Night Games, 1966; The Damned, 1969; Luna, 1969; Murmur of the Heart, 1971; Spanking the Monkey, 1994), grandmother (Midnight Cowboy, 1968, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, 1985); or sister (Through a Glass Darkly, 1962). Father-son incest is alluded to in Primal Fear and its aftereffects are portrayed in The Celebration (see below for discussions of these movies), but otherwise male-male incest does not appear in any popular film I know of, even though it actually occurs more frequently in real life than female-male incest with male victims. Presumably, moviemakers believe audiences will not tolerate male-male incest in a film that is, of course, ultimately made to be profitable.
Mother-son incest is perhaps the most provocative and titillating incestuous relationship (Gartner, 1999). Incoming-of-age movies like those discussed in the previous section, mother-son incest is presented symbolically in the relationships between older women and boys. Certainly the fascination and shock value of these stories is that the woman involved is old enough to be the boy’s mother and is often in a position of power and trust in relation to him.
Overt, rather than symbolic, mother-son incest is the central theme of Murmur of the Heart and Spanking the Monkey. There is, however, a stark contrast between the two movies in their depiction of maternal incest and its aftereffects. I will examine them in detail:
In Murmur of the Heart, a French film by Louis Malle, Laurent, a 14-year-old boy, lives with his two older brothers, his gynecologist father, and his beautiful mother, Clara, who is considerably younger than her husband. The parents lead nearly separate lives, while the older boys are outrageous, indulged, and nasty. These brothers urinate in their mother’s sink on one occasion, compare penis size with one another and with Laurent, and take the younger boy to a bordello for a first sexual experience with a woman, which they humiliatingly interrupt. Laurent emulates his brothers when he can. We see him stealing a record from a store, and he is shown with his priest/teacher in a scene that includes an attempted seduction by the priest. In time, Laurent discovers his mother is having an affair.
When Laurent is found to have a heart murmur, he and Clara go to a spa for treatment. In this second half of the film, the relationship between the mother and son is more fully delineated. Clara had married her husband after becoming pregnant at age 16, much to his bourgeois family’s horror. She is bored, yet fascinating. We see Laurent gaze at his mother when she is naked in the bathroom. She gets angry and slaps him, yet her messages are mixed. There is abundant seductive energy between the two, and she passively encourages his erotic interest in her.
Clara’s lover visits her, and Laurent listens from the next room during their tryst. At the lover’s insistence, she goes away with him. Left alone, Laurent carefully and lovingly spreads his mother’s underwear on her bed, recreating the pattern of her body with it and then putting on her makeup. He seems to make up for her absence by simultaneously becoming her and making love to her image.
When Clara gives up her lover, Laurent consoles her. Both inebriated, they make love in an extended erotic scene that includes intercourse. Afterward, Clara says it will never be repeated but will always be remembered as a beautiful moment by both of them. Later, Laurent steals out of the room and spends the night with a young girl his own age. In the morning, when he tries to sneak back to his own room, he discovers his father and brothers have unexpectedly arrived. Clara is at first very flustered because Laurent is not there. When he comes in, the father and brothers laugh uproariously, presumably because they assume he’s been with a girl all night. After some hesitation, both Clara and Laurent join in their prolonged hilarity as the film ends.
Murmur of the Heart originally caused a scandal in France, where government money for its production was withheld. But it was a success with many critics, who saw it as a refreshingly nontraumatic portrayal of a taboo act. Braucourt (1971) described the movie’s denouement this way: “Suddenly, Clara takes this lovesick, confused young man in her arms. What occurs after that happens in the most natural way possible . . .” (p. 48). Afterward, Braucourt continued, “freed of his obsession with his mother, Laurent is also now able to come to terms with his father and his brothers — with all men, in fact. And, as for women . . . well there happens to be a pretty young girl staying at the spa who has been trying to get his eye . . .” (p. 50).
When originally shown in the United States in the early 1970s and later revived in 1989, Murmur of the Heart was considered a charming and ironic Gallic questioning of traditional ideas about the bad effects of mother-son incest. Darling (1989) called it “wonderful and charming” in New York Newsday (p. 7), while Musetto (1989) wrote in the New York Post that it was an “enticing and invigorating Oedipal comedy . . . [that] deals with [incest] delicately and maturely” (p. 23). Musetto went on to say, “Malle makes it perfectly clear that neither Laurent nor Clara will suffer any long-lasting ill effects of what comes across as indiscretion rather than depravity” (p 23). Keyser (1975) similarly wrote that the incest act “is presented as a positive, indeed a lovely and touching moment in his life, a stage in a natural cycle” (p. 187). Genet (1971) wrote in the New Yorker that it was a film of “perfect credibility” (p. 133), “an affectionate, touching, and unshocking story of altogether accidental incest” (p. 130; emphasis added).
A smaller number of writers questioned this perception. In a mixed review in the New York Times, Canby (1971) called the film “a slick, almost incredibly charming family comedy about a family that isn’t very charming” (p. 1). In the movie, Canby said, “the boy possesses his first and dearest love, Mom, and Mom goes on to other affairs secure in the knowledge that she has not only straightened out her son, but won a permanent place in his heart, probably ahead of all women to come” (p. 1). Writing in the Village Voice, Brown (1989) criticized the movie more sharply, calling Murmur of the Heart “a crowd pleaser [that] uses cuteness to make incest . . . look easy” (p. 70). She added that the film “runs from the implications of its choices. The movie’s pace is frantic, almost hysterical; the tone is off[,] . . . excruciatingly grating” (p. 70).
In 1996, I led a discussion of Murmur of the Heart for a group of psychoanalysts who work with sexually abused patients. From the perspective of clinicians in the 1990s, even those who remembered thinking the film was delightful and charming when they saw it twenty-five years earlier, the film is dominated by the dark and distressing psychological forces under its lightly ironic tone. The family is disturbed in insidious ways. The parents know nothing about one another’s innermost lives and little about the lives of their three sons, with whom the parents have no capacity or inclination to set limits. The sons are out of control and vicious to one another and to the family’s servants. Sexuality in its most corrupt and hurtful forms is rampant in the family’s life, as seen in the mother’s “secret” affair, which is revealed to Laurent and is also known to the servants; in the priest’s sexual advances to Laurent; in the brothers’ competitive comparisons of their penis sizes and in their rough and humiliating sexual initiation of Laurent. It is even implied in the circumstances of the parents’ courtship and marriage when the mother was impregnated at 16 by the father, a much older, established physician. The family’s manic denial of its troubled depths is extraordinary.
Malle believed the incest was nontraumatic for Laurent (Chutkow, 1989), and some critics felt this was demonstrated by Laurent’s immediately going to bed with a young girl after he commits incest (Braucourt, 1971; Chutkow, 1989). Despite this belief that there was no trauma in the incest he depicted, however, Malle’s artistry did accurately convey the restive edginess of a family in which incest occurs, even though his film’s light tone seems to have hidden this agitated, uneasy quality from many of its early viewers. The lack of boundaries and limits in relation to all behavior, including sexuality, makes the incest far from the “accidental” encounter that Genet (1971) described. While Lorenz (1985) was right that there is neither force nor coercion in the incest, this is hardly a safeguard from adverse effects. Indeed, boys who know they were excited and willing participants in sexual abuse, or who feel great affection for their abuser, often feel guiltily responsible for what happened (Dimock, 1989; Gartner, 1999). This makes it even more difficult for them to come to terms with it . And Canby’s (1971) ironic but telling statement about Clara having won a place in Laurent’s heart “ahead of all women to come” has ominous implications for the boy’s later ability to form intimate relationships with women. The clinical and psychological literature on both men and women involved in incest as children demonstrates how remarkably difficult it can be to surmount the negative impact of having literally been an “Oedipal winner” and go on to establish other intimate relationships. The character of these clinical accounts (see, for example, Bolton, Morris, and MacEachron, 1988; Lew, 1988; Hunter, 1990; Mendel, 1995; Gartner, 1999), certainly gives the lie to Malle’s perhaps frivolous contention, as quoted by de Leusse (1971), that psychoanalysts would lose patients if boys made love to their mothers rather than dream about it all their lives.
In my view, Laurent’s flight from his mother’s bed to find a willing sexual partner of his own age does not, as Malle presumably intended, show that he had no ill effects from the abuse. Rather, I believe it reveals how disturbed he is by having achieved his erotic desires with her, and by her allowing and encouraging him to do so. These erotic wishes ferment throughout the movie, developing from the usual flirtatiousness between a young adolescent and his mother, through the anxious recognition of her sexual affair, and on to his exquisitely disturbing open desire for her in the scenes where he spies on her in the bathroom, listens to her having sex with her lover, and longingly lays out her underwear on her bed so it looks like her body, then makes love to her clothes.
Seen in this light, Laurent’s instantly leaving Clara after the incest to spend the night with a young girl is not proof that he has been freed of his obsession with his mother. Rather, it serves to distract him from his deed and may set the stage for his resorting to sexually compulsive behavior to soothe anxiety in the future, another common symptom of men sexually abused as boys (Lew, 1988; Gartner, 1999). The night with the young girl constitutes Laurent’s attempt to cleanse himself and perhaps even to reassure himself that he still has a penis and has not been castrated by the incest. Like many boys, he is rushing to deny any ill effects from premature sex with a woman (Mendel, 1995; Gartner, 1999), even, in this case, his mother. At the end of the movie, the father and brothers laugh applaudingly at what they see as Laurent’s sexual coming of age. The irony, of course, is that they do not know that the mother was the partner. When Laurent and his mother join their laughter, they are making a duplicitous decision to deny once again the family’s inner distress and confusion.
In Spanking the Monkey, made over twenty years after Murmur of the Heart, maternal incest is depicted in a very different mood. Ray, a college premed student, returns home for summer vacation expecting to leave shortly for a prestigious internship at the Surgeon General’s office in Washington. Tom, his salesman father, meets him at the bus and tells him his mother has suffered a severe fracture. To his dismay, Ray is told he must stay home to nurse her while his father goes on an extended business trip. They drive directly to the airport for Tom’s departure. Ray protests giving up his internship, but Tom insists it is now time to give something back and sacrifice his plans. Tom hurriedly gives Ray a long list of instructions. Some are about the mother’s needs, but, tellingly, many more are about the family dog’s care.
The mother, Susan, is portrayed as difficult, intelligent, attractive, bitter, and perhaps alcoholic. The parents’ marriage is revealed as empty, with Tom having affairs on his trips and Susan restless, lonely, and unfulfilled. As the summer progresses, Ray does a great deal of physical caretaking of his mother, including carrying her back and forth to the toilet, standing next to the shower with averted eyes while helping her bathe, and rubbing moisturizing lotion on her legs and under her high hip cast. These scenes are increasingly sensual and disturbing as time goes on. He has little else to do, and when he retreats to the bathroom to masturbate (“spank the monkey”) after frustrating or angry encounters with his mother, he is consistently interrupted by the dog.
Ray eventually arranges to go to his internship. He can’t sleep the night before his departure, and he and his mother watch television together, lying on her bed and drinking vodka and tonic. This leads to a consummation of the erotic tension between them. In the morning, Ray misses his train, and tension erupts between mother and son. Ray speaks to Tom in Seattle, telling him what happened the night before. Susan denies the incest and Tom believes her, protesting to Ray that he “doesn’t need” this kind of problem when his business is doing badly.
Ray is helplessly furious, and tries to hang himself with a belt. He is interrupted by Susan, and soon Tom comes home and announces that he can’t pay for Ray’s next year of college, that Ray will have to work with Tom and live at home. Ray makes a suicidal dive into an old quarry. Surviving the dive, at the picture’s end he is seen hitchhiking out of town.
The tones of Murmur of the Heart and Spanking the Monkey are strikingly different, giving their audiences very different messages about maternal incest. I have commented on the light, ironic tone of Murmur of the Heart, which implied, especially to its early viewers, that somehow the incest was a normal, if unusual, part of growing up for Laurent. Spanking the Monkey has a much darker tone. The dangerous bitterness of the mother, the hopelessness of the father beneath his devil-may-care salesman’s exterior, and the desperate and ineffective attempts of the son to save himself from being trapped by the family’s dynamics, are all chillingly conveyed.
In both films, the parents are isolated from one another. In each mother-son relationship, the eroticism is mutual but the mother disavows it. The family denial in Murmur of the Heart is also seen in Spanking the Monkey, but its quality is different. In Murmur of the Heart, the family disclaims or minimizes its stresses. Its members seem to believe the picture they present of a spirited, basically unified family. In Spanking the Monkey, the parents also have a relatively happy front, but the mother, at least, is openly despondent about her husband and her life, while the father is withdrawn from his wife and unable to deal with her emotional vicissitudes, not really caring about them except as they impinge upon him. Yet, when the family’s survival is threatened by the son’s revelation of incest, the mother denies it categorically and the father is relieved to accept her denial and blame his son for creating problems. Unlike Laurent, Ray is furious at his mother. His reality is dismissed and he then becomes suicidal. This chain of events is much more in keeping with what we know happens in the aftermath of incest and sexual abuse. Anger, confusion, even suicide, are likely sequelae, especially when the victim’s reality is disbelieved.
Abuse of Boys by Men in Film
Sexual abuse of boys by men is virtually always portrayed in a very different light than abuse by women. In contrast to the sense that women are offering boys sexual education and pleasure, men are usually seen as humiliating and hurting boys through sexual activity. Sexual scenes between boys and men are usually coercive and brutal, often involving outright rape if a sexual act is completed. After briefly considering movies with scenes of sexual humiliation, I will describe three movies in which young boys are raped by men; one in which chronic institutionalized molestation including rape is portrayed; then two in which father-son incest is alluded to, though not actually described or shown; and, finally, an exception to the rule that male-male abuse is always portrayed as brutal and violently coercive.
Sexual humiliation by older boys is graphically portrayed in numerous movies, often for humorous effect. In the Swedish film My Life As a Dog (1985), for example, a young boy is bullied by his older brother to put his penis into the neck of a glass bottle in order to demonstrate to other children how a penis enters a vagina. The penis gets stuck in the bottle, which has to be smashed to release it, cutting the boy’s genitals and making him bleed profusely. The other children are highly amused, and the scene, while conveying one of many poignant indignities the boy goes through, is comic in tone. Similarly, in Porky’s (1981), teenage boys are inspected nude, then scared into running outside naked; and in Powder (1995) the albino title character is stripped naked by other boys. I have already described the sexual humiliation of the retarded boy in The Last Picture Show.
In these three movies, forcible rape of boys is portrayed as a horror that cannot be spoken of, with very negative aftereffects:
In Prince of Tides (1991), a middle aged man is forced to look at his personal history when his twin sister attempts suicide and he is asked by her psychiatrist to help her understand the family history. Caustic and bitter, he says at one point, “I chose not to have a memory.” Among many terrible familial experiences, including a seductive relationship with his beautiful mother, there is a shared family memory, never alluded to, of a hideous multiple rape by three escaped convicts of the mother, sister, and brother. The protagonist eventually feels compelled to tell the psychiatrist about these rapes, finally sobbing out the reactions of the 13-year-old boy who never spoke of his violation. (Arguably, he is then abused by the psychiatrist when she starts an affair with him.) It is clear that the rape is but one of many emotional traumas in his childhood, and that his stalemate as an adult has multiple sources in his early familial experiences.
A Brother’s Kiss (1997) is the story of two boys growing up poor in New York City. Sons of a promiscuous though loving single mother, they are chronically exposed to the sounds of her lovemaking with various men. There is an early scene in which the older brother (aged about 15) leads the younger one (aged about 10) into Central Park at night, where they are waylaid by a policeman who rapes the younger boy. The rape is interrupted after penetration when the rapist is attacked and knifed by the older brother. As a result of this incident, the older boy is sent to reform school. There is never any direct discussion of the effect of the rape or the overstimulation by the mother as the boys grow up and deal with the various harshness of their environment. The younger boy, however, who grows up to be a policeman, is portrayed as sexually constricted in a highly sexualized neighborhood and familial milieu.
Sleepers (1996) is a gritty portrayal of the aftermath of torture, beatings, and sexual abuse in a boys’ detention center. It is described by its writer, Lorenzo Carcaterra, as true and autobiographical, although New York State authorities deny its veracity. Set in the late 1960s, the movie tells the story of four boys of about 13 from the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City, a poor working-class neighborhood where crime and domestic violence are rampant. The boys are involved in petty crimes, but one of these crimes inadvertently results in a man being critically injured. The boys are sentenced to a juvenile detention center. They are not hardened when they go to the reform school, and indeed are relatively innocent, despite their exposure to and participation in crime. They are certainly unaware of what may lie ahead of them when they arrive at the center, frightened and chastened. Once there, they are soon brutalized and raped anally and orally by vicious guards. These events occur over a period of months and are portrayed in powerful detail.
Before the first of them is released from the center, this conversation takes place among the boys about their experiences:
“I don’t want anyone to know. . . .”
“I can’t think of anyone who needs to hear about it. Either they won’t believe it or they won’t give a shit.”
“I don’t think we should talk about it once it’s over, you know?”
“We have no choice but to live with it. And talking makes living with it harder. So we might as well not talk about it. The truth stays with us.”
The rest of the movie is set about ten years later, and is a tale of the boys’ revenge against the guards, whom they manage to murder or implicate in crimes. In a dramatic scene, one of the former guards breaks down in tears on the witness stand, confessing his role in the rape and torture of young boys at the reform school.
In this latter part of the movie, we see the young men suffering flashbacks of the original victimizations, and other posttraumatic effects of their brutalizations are described, such as not sleeping unless there is a light on. There is a celebratory scene at the end where the four are reunited, and we hear one of them say, “It’s time for quiet. I just want to shut my eyes and not see the places I’ve been. I’m weary. Maybe I’ll get lucky and forget I was even there.”
The movie has a coda in which we learn the fates of the young men. Two die violent deaths before the age of 30, one is a nonpracticing attorney in dire psychological straits, and the fourth is the narrator, who says in a voiceover, “I am the only one who can speak for them and the children we were.”
In these three movies involving the rape of boys, the scenarios are different, but the boys have common reactions and aftereffects. All the boys keep silent about their abuse, and the effect of their silence in each case is chilling and spreads far beyond the specific betrayal situation. The man in Prince of Tides is filled with unexpressed rage, and in his adult life has come to a crashing halt. The boy in A Brother’s Kiss reacts to his rape and the general sexual overstimulation of his environment by becoming interpersonally constricted and isolated. The men in Sleepers are failures of one sort or another, suffer from PTSD, and, with perhaps the exception of the narrator, give up any semblance of having satisfying lives in order to get vengeance on their rapists.
By contrast, in the creepily offbeat and disturbing Blue Velvet (1986), a movie in which a woman comes close to raping a young man at knife point after forcing him to strip, the scene is frightening but erotic. The young man whispers how much he likes what the woman is doing to him, and his sexual involvement with her becomes a willing one. She is portrayed as weak, pitiful, and terrified, while he saves her life and solves the mystery at the heart of the movie’s plot.
Institutionalized Sexual Abuse
The Boys of St. Vincent (1994) is a two-part movie depicting long-term, brutal sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of boys in an orphanage. It is based on true events in a Newfoundland Catholic home for boys and their aftermath. It addresses several diverse themes related to the sexual abuse of boys, and conveys much of the complexity of boys’ reactions to it. In addition, its unusual portrayal of the chief abuser, particularly in Part II, shows him as a complicated individual whose behavior, while appalling, becomes understandable, though not forgiveable.
In Part I, we see the boys’ abuse in horrifyingly graphic detail. Brother Lavin, the Superintendent of the Home, is spellbinding and charismatic, but terrifying. He frequently summons Kevin, his “special boy,” to his office. There, he holds, caresses, kisses, and otherwise molests Kevin while murmuring how much he loves him. In these moments he sometimes says he is Kevin’s dead mother. But if Kevin displeases him, Brother Lavin explodes in physically abusive rage. When this happens, we see Kevin’s hands and body go limp.
The involvement between the Superintendent and Kevin is not isolated at the orphanage, where many boys are abused in various ways by at least some of the Brothers. These boys have nowhere else to go, but to some extent they are able to bolster one another’s spirits in spite of their situation. The brand of Catholicism being taught at St. Vincent by the Brothers, molesters or not, demands unswerving loyalty to the orphanage and obedience to orders from authority figures. There is an explicit message that those who do not obey will go to hell. Independent thinking is not allowed, and classroom scenes often involve rote repetition of the definitions and rules of Catholicism.
Political overtones are also suggested. St. Vincent is in the midst of a fund-raising drive to raise money for a new athletic arena; there are scenes with high Church officials who are clear they will not stand for any besmirching of the orphanage’s name, particularly at such a time. The power of the Church to influence lay authorities is also chillingly conveyed. We see this with politicians and police, as well as with the Church’s own social worker, who is not allowed to see the boys.
When Kevin runs away from St. Vincent, he is picked up by the police. Brother Lavin, on being told Kevin protested violently about being returned to the orphanage, comments smoothly that boys like this will do anything for attention. When the two are alone, there is an initial moment of tenderness until Kevin firmly says the superintendent is not his mother, that his mother is dead. Brother Lavin then throws him across the room and beats him mercilessly with a belt buckle, carrying him senseless up to his dormitory late that night. The next day, Kevin cannot get out of bed, and Brother Lavin tenderly tells him he can stay in bed that day, and that everything he has done to Kevin is for Kevin’s own good. We see Brother Lavin shift swiftly back and forth from states of viciousness to states of tenderness. He seems not fully to recognize his own actions or his occasional near-breaks with reality.
In the rest of Part I, Kevin is broken. He is far more careful about his protests; he is more depressed, less lively, and more guarded and suspicious.
We also see another boy, Steven, being visited and molested at night by a different Brother. When Steven’s brother Brian, who is six years older, learns these molestations are happening “again,” he protests to Brother Lavin loudly and threateningly. He is punished by having ten belt lashes on each hand.
When the situation is reported to the police by a janitor, an investigation commences. The boys’ stories are conveyed both through flat recitations by the boys in the police station and brief, viscerally evocative flashbacks to the abuse being described in these recitations. Steven, however, unlike the others, denies he has been abused, showing a bravado and empty showmanship that superficially protects him from experiencing the effects of his trauma. The chief detective promises to visit Kevin, and Kevin is assured by him and other authorities that the abuse will stop.
But instead the investigation is stopped. A high official on the police force demands that the boys’ statements be rewritten because they are “pornographic” and so that criminal investigations will not proceed. Instead, the Brothers involved will be placed elsewhere, where they will be counseled. The chief detective makes a pointed comment about the boys not being offered counseling; he is told sharply that his own job is on the line if he does not do as he is told.
At the end of Part I, Brother Lavin has allowed Brian to leave the orphanage, warning him that if he tells what he knows Steven, his younger brother, will pay the consequences. Brian promises Steven that he will return to get him out of St. Vincent. Two abusing Brothers confess and are removed from the home, but Brother Lavin continues to deny any wrongdoing. He stays at his post until he is discovered by a nonoffending Brother kissing Kevin passionately. This follows a harrowing scene in which he chases Kevin in homicidal fury and Kevin saves himself by calling the Superintendent “Mom.” Brother Lavin and the two other Brothers are replaced at St. Vincent by men equally vicious and demanding, and in a brief scene we see one of them molesting a boy in his bed at night.
Part II takes place fifteen years later. In a complex intercutting of narratives, we follow the stories of Kevin, Steven, Brian, and Peter Lavin, no longer a member of his order but now a husband and father of two boys living in Montreal. The now retired detective brings criminal charges against Lavin based on the fifteen-year-old affidavits by the boys. Kevin is aghast and enraged that he is being subpoenaed to testify, and says he will not appear in court. When he confronts the detective for not having fulfilled his promise to visit, he learns the detective was told by a Brother that Kevin was now living with an uncle. In fact, Kevin stayed in the orphanage until he was 16. Steven is brought in to testify from Toronto, where he is a cocaine addict living on welfare. He is reunited for the first time with his brother Brian, who is now married and the father of two. At their reunion, Brian tells Steven that as an adult he tried to find him. Steven protests that it is all “water under the bridge” but it is clear that underneath his old bravado he is deeply wounded by his brother’s failure to come back and get him out of the orphanage. Steven and Brian talk about their inability to forgive. Steven says he can never forgive his victimization. Brian says he couldn’t at first, and had turned away from religion, but has since discovered that if he can’t forgive, then he must live with his rage.
We witness several legal investigations simultaneously in crosscut: Lavin’s trial, the trial of the Brother who molested Steven, and the administrative investigation into the coverup of the boys’ testimony. Cynical assessments of the trials come in the form of a call-in radio show whose host dryly comments on what has been said in the trials. In particular, she ridicules the inability of any official to remember anything blameworthy about anyone involved in the coverup who is still living. Steven is ambushed on the witness stand by a defense lawyer; he is revealed as an occasional male prostitute who himself abused younger boys in the years before he left St. Vincent. Shattered, he dies of an overdose of drugs just as his abuser is convicted.
Kevin is initially stonily silent about his abuse and prone to erupt in fury if pressed to talk about it. He is building himself a house in a lonely country area, and spends his time installing insulation there, perhaps a symbolic representation of the isolation and insulation he has needed to survive. He stops seeing his girl friend when she gets too curious after he physically attacks another former St. Vincent orphan who reminds him that he was Lavin’s “special boy.” The girl friend says she doesn’t care what Lavin did to Kevin, but that she does care about what the abuse and the silence are doing to him now. Kevin refuses even to go meet with Steven until Steven’s death changes Kevin’s mind about testifying against Lavin. Devastated, he attends Steven’s funeral, and, against Brian’s advice, decides to appear in court.
Meanwhile, Lavin’s seemingly happy family life is shattered when he is arrested at home. His wife is at first supportive of Lavin, totally disbelieving the charges against him. As time goes on, we gradually see her begin to doubt him, decide to stand by him anyway, then turn away from him forever when she realizes the full extent of his crimes. At first, he denies all wrongdoing, and is furious when he is dismissed from his job. In these scenes we see flashes of the rage that were so common in Part I of the movie. Imperious, self-righteous, and arrogant, he maintains that the boys are lying ingrates.
Lavin does agree to see a psychiatrist to get support for his contention that he is not a child molester. In extraordinary scenes with this psychiatrist, we begin to see Lavin’s inner life. Lavin describes his own early abuse and abandonment, and his experiences in three foster homes before going to St. Vincent himself at age 9. At first, he claims these experiences only made him strong, not soft like boys who grew up with families. Later, however, he talks about the fear of sex and love that led him to join a religious brotherhood, confessing that he never felt safe until he married his wife. He describes his joy in raising children in a way he himself never experienced. When Lavin talks about how much he loved Kevin, he breaks down sobbing. The psychiatrist tells him to try to meet the little boy inside himself. The implication is clear that when “loving” Kevin Lavin was trying to give love to his own little-boy self while simultaneously despising that same vulnerable, needy child.
The night before his trial, Lavin’s wife asks him to tell her what she will hear in court, but Lavin totally ignores her as he ceaselessly and feverishly recites the Hail Mary. In the final scenes of the movie, Kevin appears on the stand and in a whisper confirms the abuse he had described fifteen years earlier. Intercut are scenes of Kevin’s first molestation. In an initially joyful swimming pool sequence, we see how Lavin turned a lonely boy’s Easter without visitors into a wonderful special event by taking him swimming. We then see how this marvelous moment veered into violation. Kevin remembers this along with flashes of later molestations and brutal beatings.
In the last scene, Lavin’s wife confronts him about the enormity of what he has done, and asks how he felt hearing how he had affected Kevin’s life. He shows no remorse, but instead claims he himself was victimized. He says he was betrayed by Kevin, whom he had truly loved. She contemptuously dismisses this “love,” then asks if he has ever touched their boys. He enigmatically replies that she should ask them, since they are “her” children. She leaves him, emphasizing that indeed the children will never again be his. Lavin’s face is softer and thoughtful in this scene than in earlier parts of the movie. After she leaves, he looks into the distance, then suddenly pounds the table violently once, then again and again, much as he had raged in the early part of the film. Then he looks away again, cupping his face as the film ends.
The Boys of St. Vincent is a harrowing film that tellingly reveals both the facts of the boys’ sexual victimizations and the later impact on them. When we see the boys as adults, one or another of them reveals common aftereffects of childhood sexual trauma: dissociation, isolation, addiction, prostitution, ragefulness, suicidality, denial, and the likelihood of becoming abusive himself. We also repeatedly see the callousness and denial of institutions in relation to sexual abuse, and the inability even of those adults who believe abuse has taken place to stop it.
I have already noted that, among the the films I have examined, only Primal Fear (1996) and The Celebration (1998) even mention male-male incest, in both cases father-son incest that is alluded to but not portrayed. In The Celebration, a Danish film, the childhood paternal abuse of a son and daughter is publicly announced by the son when as an adult he is attending his father’s sixtieth birthday party, a large weekend-long celebration at a chateau. The extent of the father’s transgressions is revealed bit by bit in successive revelations. We see that the son has been severely damaged by his boyhood abuse, and has been incapable of intimate relatedness throughout his life. His sister, who has committed suicide, was also deeply damaged. The father denies the incest through most of the movie, and this denial is conveyed and reinforced in the reactions of those who hear the accusations. The partygoers are momentarily shocked by each disclosure, but then continue to celebrate the birthday in a nearly surrealistic manner that serves as a dramatic enactment of the chronic denial often seen in incestuous families.
The handling (or mishandling) of the themes of paternal incest as well as dissociative identity disorder in Primal Fear are instructive. In it, a criminal lawyer defends a young man accused of savagely stabbing and murdering a revered Catholic bishop. The young man, a soft-spoken and stammering altar boy, claims he loved the bishop, who had saved him when he was a runaway, and had no ill feelings toward him of any kind. He admits to being there when the bishop was murdered, but says someone else was also present whom he could not see clearly. The young man is observed by a psychologist, and as time goes on it becomes clear that he experiences periods when he “loses time” in an apparent fugue state. Childhood abuse by the young man’s father is hinted at as a cause for the fugue states but is not specifically described in the movie.
What seems to be a second personality emerges: abrasive, fearless, and angry. The man’s lawyer comes to believe that this second personality committed the savage murder, which was committed because the bishop made pornographic videotapes that included the young man, his girl friend, and several other young men. Too late to enter a plea of insanity, the lawyer instead tricks the prosecutor into drawing out this second personality while cross-examining the defendant. As this second personality, he physically attacks the prosecutor in front of the jury. The trial is stopped and the young man is remanded for treatment. In a coda, he tells his lawyer that he had faked the multiplicity, that the soft-spoken “personality” had always been a put-on.
Primal Fear only hints at the paternal incest that presumably caused the young man’s dissociative identity disorder. Then, after making an effective case for his alternative personality having committed murder, itself a stereotypic idea about the danger posed by men abused as boys, the film turns around and portrays the man as a psychopath and fake, thus supporting another popular bias that dissociative identity disorder is nearly always contrived.
I know of only one movie for general audiences in which a boy is portrayed as being sexually initiated by a man. For a Lost Soldier (1994) is a Dutch film with a rare theme, a sexual relationship between a man and a young boy who seems already headed for a predominantly homosexual orientation. It had a very limited distribution in the United States, not surprising for a movie that depicts such a relationship in a comparatively positive light. There is no force used in the movie, and the effects of the relationship on the boy are subtle, as opposed to those in, for example, The Boys of St. Vincent.
For a Lost Soldier is a long flashback from the present day, when the adult Jeroen, a choreographer, is hitting a creative block. We go back to 1944 in wartime Holland, and Jeroen, then about 12, is shipped from Amsterdam to the countryside for safety. We see his initial loneliness and his later attachment to the family with whom he lives. In several scenes, his erotic interest in other boys is conveyed: he is uninterested in boys’ sexual talk about girls, his eyes linger on the naked body of his older friend as he sleeps in the sun, he caresses the sleeping son of the family he stays with while they share a bed.
Life changes when the Canadian army comes to liberate their village. Jeroen is drawn to Walt, a handsome officer who likewise takes an interest in him. Jeroen develops a crush on Walt, and is delighted with the playful nature of their relationship. Their relationship steadily becomes more overtly sexual. Walt says at one point, “When I first saw you, I was sure you were different. I was sure you were my kind of guy — So what kind of guy are you? — You’re special, Jeroen, really fucking special.” As he draws close to Jeroen, apparently to kiss him, the boy diverts him by pointing out a ship in the water. In a subsequent scene, Jeroen goes into Walt’s room while Walt is showering. The naked Walt grabs him and pulls him under the water, fully clothed, as the two of them whoop with laughter. This playful scene cuts away to the two of them curled up naked in bed, caressing one another in postcoital pleasure. As Walt sleeps, Jeroen wanders around the room, combing his hair like Walt’s and doing other activities that indicate his growing identification with the young man. In a later scene, Walt and Jeroen are shown having anal intercourse. Walt is tender, and whispers, “I love you — my prince — you’re mine.” The scene is lyrical, but the boy looks troubled, and as Walt enters him he winces in pain while his lover’s face is rapturous.
After a few days, Walt leaves with the Canadian forces without telling Jeroen. When Jeroen finds out that Walt is gone, he is heartbroken. He desperately attempts to find Walt, then tries unsuccessfully at least to salvage a souvenir to remember him by. At the end, we return to the middle aged Jeroen, and the ambiguous finish of the movie shows him rueful and sad, though now able to unblock his creativity as he recalls the affair with Walt. Perhaps unsuccessful in adult intimate relationships, there is a hint that he is sexually involved with a very young-looking male dancer.
Like the many coming-of-age films involving boys and older women discussed above, For a Lost Soldier emphasizes the erotic component of the intimacy between the boy and man, as well as the boy’s eagerness for the relationship. The nostalgic, romantic mood of Summer of ‘42 is evident in this movie as well, and in many ways For a Lost Soldier gives the same message to gay boys that Summer of ‘42 gives to heterosexual boys, namely, that he is very lucky to “come of age” via sexuality with an adult, in this case a man.
Yet For a Lost Soldier gives a complex message about Jeroen’s “sexual initiation.” Though understated, there is more obvious ambivalence here than in Summer of ‘42 about sexual behavior with the adult object of the boy’s adoring desire. There are hints that Jeroen, while lonely and longing for an eroticized relationship with Walt, is mainly looking for an intense bond to a man with whom he can identify and on whom he can depend, rather than for an explicit adult sexual relationship. Walt’s warmth and interest in him would be a heady experience for any lonely boy. Yet, at several points Jeroen diverts Walt from overt sexuality; and the look of fear and pain on his face before and during anal intercourse belies the otherwise ecstatic feeling of the scene. His sexual betrayal by Walt is twofold: his implicitly eroticized hero worship is turned into unambiguous adult sexuality, and subsequently Walt’s promise of interpersonal intimacy is broken by a heedless and callous desertion. The enigmatic ending suggests that Jeroen has had troubled intimate relationships ever since being seduced and abandoned as a 12-year-old by a man he adored.
In this coming-of-age movie, therefore, the message to a gay boy is mixed. Jeroen certainly considers himself lucky to have Walt, who is portrayed as a kind of dream lover until his sudden departure. Yet his introduction to sexuality is equivocally depicted, and his abandonment is wrenching.
Sexual Victimization of Boys in Film
If we accept the premise that movies both influence and are influenced in turn by popular culture in their depiction of societal attitudes, we must examine what is reflected thereby in their depiction of male sexual victimization.
There is a clear differentiation in film between sexual betrayal by women and by men. In general, female abusers are depicted as sexually desirable. Often the sexual scenes with them are frankly erotic and the boys are seen as lucky to be in relationships with these women (Summer of ‘42, Tea and Sympathy, Murmur of the Heart, even, in a somewhat different spirit, Harold and Maude). The women are either amiable objects of sexual desire (Private Lessons, All That Jazz, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song), or noble self-sacrificing victims for whom we often feel compassion when the boys abandon them (The Last Picture Show, A Cold Wind in August). There is virtually no sense that a boy may not always be happy to be sexually involved with an older woman. Although in some cases they may initially react to their seductions with embarrassed fumbling, often they become magically skilled lovers (The Graduate, Summer of ‘42), thus reinforcing the idea that such a relationship is their ticket to manhood. And, with a very few exceptions (The Graduate, Blue Velvet, Spanking the Monkey), the women are portrayed as non-exploitative and non-menacing.
Clearly, the message for a boy sexually betrayed by a woman is that he is a fortunate stud who has gotten what all boys long for, that he has found the ticket to manhood, perhaps even that he himself is a victimizer. Certainly there is no validation in these images for a boy who is uncomfortable or hesitant about premature sexual activity with a woman. A boy cannot help but deduce that anxiety, dread, or apprehension about these situations make him different from other boys and perhaps unmanly. He learns to ignore these sensations, deny them, or never allow them into awareness. With the exception of Spanking the Monkey (which was an independent film with a relatively limited distribution), none of the movies reviewed portrays clearcut negative consequences of a boy’s premature sexuality. On the contrary, it has very positive sequelae for him in most of the films under discussion (Summer of ‘42, Tea and Sympathy, Murmur of the Heart, Harold and Maude).
By contrast, virtually all movies involving sexual betrayal by a man depict the abuse as humiliating, shameful, and/or a cause for revenge. In every case, the boy keeps silent about his experience (even, apparently, in For a Lost Soldier, which depicts the abuse in a relatively positive light). This silence usually has disastrous effects on him (Prince of Tides, Sleepers, The Boys of St. Vincent, The Celebration). There is no model for a more positive outcome should he be able to talk about what happened to him, even though it has been demonstrated that having a confidant ameliorates some of the worst effects of boyhood sexual victimization (Conte, 1985; Gilgun, 1990, 1991).
Boys abused by men in some instances are seen as antisocial in later life (Sleepers, Primal Fear, The Boys of St. Vincent). This is indeed often the case, but there is no sense that, as is more frequently true, an abused boy may grow up sensitive and compassionate, although depressed, anxious, or agitated in one way or another. The one exception to some of these rules is The Boys of St. Vincent, which graphically and compassionately shows how abuse affects boys in diverse ways. This movie, however, had censorship problems when it was produced, exactly because of its accurate portrayal of male sexual victimization.
A boy abused by a man, therefore, concludes from the movies that he should be silent about a shameful experience, even though his silence is likely to lead to devastating results. He sees his experience as something that may cause ridicule or social ostracism (Porky’s, Powder, My Life As a Dog) if it is known. In movie after movie, the message is to keep quiet about sexual abuse by a man in order to avoid derision and humiliation. Silence has terrible effects on the boys, but the only action open to them is hypermasculine revenge. Aside from The Boys of St. Vincent and, perhaps, Prince of Tides, none of these films shows any kind of model for healing from boyhood abuse by men.
As I have indicated, these movies probably reflect cultural attitudes at the time they appeared. But, in addition to reflecting societal attitudes, movies also influence them. Perhaps it is a positive sign that the most balanced and accurate movies I discuss, The Boys of St. Vincent, Spanking the Monkey, and The Celebration,were produced in recent years. On the other hand, they were all independent projects that received limited distribution, while recent portrayals like the revenge-driven Sleepers or the intellectually dishonest Primal Fear are products of Hollywood studios and were widely distributed. Thus, Hollywood’s influence in general has been to spread the most hurtful attitudes toward the sexual victimization of boys. I am, obviously, not advocating either censorship or limiting artistic freedom of expression in any way. I believe, however, that consciousness raising about ma_le sexual victimization is as appropriate for creative artists as for all other members of society.
In Mysterious Skin, a novel by Scott Heim (1995), when two boys sexually abused by their Little League coach reencounter one another in early adulthood, they are finally able to articulate the experience that led one to become delusional about being taken away by aliens and the other to be a sexually compulsive hustler. They have an emotional reunion as the two — one straight and one gay — try to make peace with their shared history. Afterward, one of them says:
If we were stars in the latest Hollywood blockbuster, then I would have embraced him, my hands patting his shoulder blades, violins and cellos billowing on the soundtrack as tears streamed down our faces. But Hollywood would never make a movie about us. (p. 283)
Sadly, this comment remains true as sexually abused men and boys continue to be nearly invisible in popular films.