Cinematic Depictions of Boyhood Sexual Victimization,
Richard Gartner, Ph.D.

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).


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