Depictions of Boyhood Sexual Victimization,
Richard Gartner, Ph.D.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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
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,
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..."
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).
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
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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