Page five, Cinematic
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 nonmenacing.
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.
Sadly, this comment remains true as sexually
abused men and boys continue to be nearly invisible
in popular films.
to page four of this article