Page five, Cinematic Depictions

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.

Sexual initiation
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. (p. 283)

Sadly, this comment remains true as sexually abused men and boys continue to be nearly invisible in popular films.

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