On March 10, 1977, the film maker Roman Polanski had sex with a 13 year old named Samantha Gailey in Jack Nicholson's Mullholland Drive mansion while the star of Polanski's masterpiece Chinatown was away. Polanski had told the girl and her mother he was interested in shooting Samantha for an issue of Vogue of which he was guest editor. After an initial shoot near the Gailey home, the then 43 year old director suggested a second session. Samantha wanted a chaperone, but a friend dropped out at the last minute, leaving her alone with Polanski. They shot a few pictures in Jaqueline Bisset's house before making their way to Nicholson's place. While driving her there, the Polish film maker asked if she had ever had sex. She replied she had. Once inside the house, he persuaded the girl to pose topless, offered her a glass of champagne, gave her a third of a Mandrax tablet and had the rest himself after confirming she'd had quaaludes before, and went through a seduction routine in the jacuzzi and on the couch. Samantha later said she resisted all through. After oral sex, he initiated intercourse, stopping to ask if Samantha was on the pill. When she told him she wasn't, he got worried about a possible pregnancy, withdrew, and asked if he could penetrate her anally. In Samantha's account, he then did so without waiting for her assent.
At that point, the couple was interrupted by a knock on the door. It was Anjelica Huston, Nicholson's girlfriend, actress daughter of the great film director John Huston, and usual occupant of the room. Polanski spoke to her through a crack in the door before returning to the bed, instructing Gailey, who had put some clothes on, to strip once more, penetrated her again and quickly climaxed. After he was done, according to Gailey, he told her to keep the whole thing a secret. As she was leaving, she met Huston in a common area of the house and spoke to her briefly. Huston later described Samantha as 'sullen', saying, further that she, "appeared to be one of those kind of little chicks between — could be any age up to 25. She did not look like a 13-year-old scared little thing.”
That evening, Samantha told her 17 year old boyfriend what had happened and was overheard by her sister, who told their mother, who told the police. Polanski was arrested and the LA media went into a frenzy. Today, the testimony of a woman claiming to have been raped tends to be taken at face value, but back in 1977 Polanski's version of events would have been given the same weight as Samantha's. Since there was nothing to the case apart from two competing descriptions of the event, no evidence of injury or violence, no attempt to shout for help or flee when a third person appeared, prosecutors and the defense arrived at a plea bargain in which Polanski would plead guilty to statutory rape (consensual sex with a minor), serve some time in jail and go through a psychiatric evaluation, in return for graver charges being dropped. The judge in the case was cognisant of the deal and, according to the defense, gave his consent. Later, though, the media's pressure began to tell on him and he hinted he would administer a tough sentence beyond what the prosecution was demanding.
Polanski, out on bail after a few weeks in prison, was spooked by this change in attitude, which the defense interpreted as a judge reneging on a deal agreed by all parties. He jumped bail, flew to France, and has never returned to the United States. A warrant for his arrest has been out for over three decades, and it finally bore fruit with his detention while on his way to receive a lifetime achievement award in Zurich. He owns a home in Switzerland and has been to the country dozens of times in the past three decades.
To many in the film fraternity, the timing of the arrest seemed perverse. Polanski is now 76, married, and has two children. Samatha Gailey, now Geimer, is married with three children, and has repeatedly said she has forgiven the director and wants the case closed. She did sue him in a civil action and settled for an undisclosed amount. It may be that asking for the closure of the case was part of the settlement.
What is a little surprising is the outrage that has followed the arrest. Politicians who at first strongly defended Polanski have backtracked in the face of public anger. In Polanski's native Poland, where he is a hero, three in four citizens support the arrest and want him tried and possibly jailed. The 150 artists and film-makers who signed a petition demanding Polanski's release have been denounced as elitists without a moral compass. The chorus is: why should a man escape justice just because he has made good films?
Some typical responses from commentators and members of the public can be found here, here, here, here, here and here.
"Roman Polanski raped a child. Let’s just start right there."
"The organisation blasted Polanski's supporters 'who apparently believe that drugging and raping a 13-year-old child is not a serious crime'."
"Polanski is a pedophile and a fugitive."
"Like many in Hollywood and throughout the rest of the entertainment world, novelist Robert Harris has raced to the defense of child-rapist and international fugitive Roman Polanski, his pal and creative collaborator
"...this case has nothing to do with Mr. Polanski’s work or his age. It is about an adult preying on a child."
Two things strike me as important in this excoriation. First, that it emerges in equal measure from the Left and Right. The New York Times, HuffingtonPost and The Guardian are united in condemning Polanski alongside the Daily Telegraph, The Sun and The Washington Times.
Secondly, commentator after commentator uses the word 'child' to describe Samantha Gailey. What do these two facts tell us?
Roman Polanski slept with Samantha Gailey during the final days of the sexual revolution. Ronald Reagan, the Moral Majority, Ayatollah Khomeini and AIDS were looming close, though nobody could have known it then. Before the revolution, virtually every act that did not fall within the bounds of marital, procreative sex was considered debased. Homosexuality, pre-marital sex, oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, you name it, it was disapproved of and frequently proscribed. Abortion was illegal in most nations, as was pornography. The birth control pill had not been invented (and was years from making the shift from wonder drug providing women sexual freedom to pharmacological conspiracy hatched by profit-obsessed multinationals targetting females).
The cultural advances of the sixties and seventies resulted in the legalisation of a range of sexual activities, but one kind was left out of the wave of liberalisation: sex between adults and minors. Condemnation of this unites liberals and conservatives. In fact, with few other outlets for their store of moral outrage, liberals often outdo conservatives in their response to cases like that of Polanski and Gailey. The fear and hatred of sex offenders is not without good cause. People such as these damage the lives of thousands of children every year, often beyond repair.
That is why the second fact I pointed to, namely the repeated use of 'child' to describe Samantha Gailey, is relevant. There are two very distinct meanings to the word 'child'. The legal definition of a child is any human below the age of 18. Traditional usage, however, refers to a boy or girl under the age of puberty. It's a crucial variation, because the period between the time that somebody stops being a child in the customary sense and the moment when s/he stops being a child in the legal sense can be very great.
The onset of puberty has traditionally been considered a crucial marker in the development of an individual. In modern legal terms however, this very significant milestone is entirely meaningless. Instead a line is drawn at age 18 after which individuals are presumed to be mature enough to make a host of decisions for themselves. It is a convenient legal fiction, even a necessary one, but a fiction nonetheless, because we all know that very little changes between the age of 17 1/2 and 18 1/2.
Humans are built to change radically not at 18 but at puberty. After that point we are sexually mature and, in most traditional societies, it is the moment when individuals can expect to commence their sexual lives. The problem is that modern society's sophistication makes it impossible for thirteen or fourteen-year-olds to get married, settle down and be able to earn a living. The expansion of the gap between the age of sexual maturity and the age of financial security delays the first sexual experience of men and women. Your great-great-great grandmother and father almost certainly had sex at a much earlier age than you did.
In countries that went through the revolution of the sixties, sexual initiation is no longer tied to marriage; teens are relatively free to experiment. In conservative societies like India, however, many educated urban women and men have to wait till ridiculously late before they first have sex. This is an aberration, and an unfortunate one, compensated for slightly by the fact that our longer life expectancy means the total number of fucks an average individual can expect in his or her lifetime is the same as or higher than it was five hundred years ago.
Let me return to my assertion that humans are built to have sex as teenagers. If one grants a girl or boy the right to have sex, should that right not extend to having sex with adults, should they so please? What is so heinous about it? It is not allowed purely for legal reasons, because it will often happen that the girl or boy will be taken advantage of. To prevent the misuse of such permissions, minors are allowed to have sex with minors, but if they choose to have sex with an adult, the adult stands to be punished. Again, this might be the best legal way to get around the issue of the use of power by adults on minors, but the idea of a 13 year old boy having sex with a fifty year old man or woman, or a thirteen year old girl having sex with a fifty year old man or woman does not in and off itself appall me.
Samantha Gailey was sexually mature and had had intercourse before she met Roman Polanski. She was not a child in the traditional sense, and Polanski's attempted seduction of her, which perhaps ended up being rape, does not make him a paedophile. He was a man who liked teenage girls, a tendency he continued to exhibit after 1977, in his relationships with Nastassja Kinski and Emmanuelle Seigner. Many mature men are attracted to teenage girls, and many teenage girls attracted to mature men. In the case of Polanski and Gailey, it appears the attraction was one way. The rhetoric and the certitude of those appalled by what Polanski did, however, originates not in the cloudy and complicated details of the case, but in the fact that he committed what was, back in 1977, merely one among a host of proscribed sexual acts, but is now western culture's last taboo, an act which generates so much disgust that commentators reflexively employ terms like 'child' and 'paedophile' even in cases where they do not fit.
One of the unfortunate side-effects of the last taboo has been the growing censorship of images that use nude children or teens. I've just read news of a photograph of Brooke Shields being taken down from the Tate Modern because it shows the 10 year old Shields naked and heavily made up. Catalogues for the show are being pulped after the Tate was advised that criminal proceedings might follow. How long before Caravaggio's wonderful, manifestly erotic Cupid is removed from the Berlin museum where it hangs?
Update, October 3, 2009: This article in today's New York Times ties in with what I've written. It quotes from the probation report of Kenneth Fare, in which the officer concludes there was no premeditation to the crime, and some indication that "the victim was not only physically mature, but willing". Whoopi Goldberg suggested the incident "wasn't rape-rape", only to face a barrage of absolutists saying "rape is rape, period". That's an argument I find utterly ridiculous. Of course there are degrees to rape just as there are degrees to everything, including homicide.