By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Charles Taylor
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Brian Feinzimer
By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By Amy Nicholson
Earlier this month, when 28-year-old Orange County English teacher Sarah Bench-Salorio was charged with molesting two of her underage male students, the public reacted with the mix of outrage and titillation that usually attends such cases. Yes, people, were condemning this woman's actions—alleged actions; she just pleaded not guilty—but many observers (mostly men, it must be said) remarked only half-jokingly that these 13-year-old boys were lucky [allegedly], that what happened to them was not so much molestation [allegedly] as a dream come true. After all, almost every schoolboy is hot for teacher at some point, and wouldn't it be fantastic if teacher was just as hot for you?
But the situation is very different when the genders are reversed. Sure, most men are obviously, undeniably attracted to certain aspects of immature female sexuality: From "barely legal" websites to Britney in that "Hit Me Baby, One More Time" schoolgirl video, the erotic appeal of the Lolita is a creepy but potent force in American pop culture. But, ideally, these girls are actually young women, comfortably above the age of consent, playing dress-up in pigtails and plaid skirts. If they are actually under 18, then you are allowed to quietly, shamefully lust in your heart, but you damn well better keep your sweaty mitts to yourself. There is the schoolgirl fantasy, and there is the tragic reality of molestation.
When a man has sex with an underage girl, pretty much everybody will agree he has violated an innocent child and he must be punished severely. This is true even in popular movies where such taboo couplings are eroticized: from the exalted Lolita all the way down to Poison Ivy, we pay to see grown men diddling teenage girls, but we also want to see the men smacked down hard afterward, tortured for acting on the very desires that brought us into the movie house in the first place. It's not unlike the strange conventions we demand of our serial killer movies, where we allow Norman Bates, Chucky, Michael Myers, et al. to hack people up for our ghastly amusement, on the condition the bad boy is locked safely away in the final reel—or has his head crushed in an industrial press.
Our attitudes toward cinematic man/girl love are complicated and hypocritical, but somehow woman/boy love seems much simpler. Tales of woman/boy love lack the shame and horror of the man/girl stuff. When Dorothy beds her teenage paramour in Summer of '42, we know she's really grieving her dead husband. See, when ladies get some underage manflesh in the movies, they usually have some emotionally compelling reason for it.
Laura Dern has been seen on both sides of a cinematic child/adult dalliance, and the difference is instructive. I'll never forget the titters from the audience when a then-24-year-old Dern was finger-banged by a then-15-year-old Lukas Haas in 1991's Rambling Rose. The scene was . . . well, let's admit it, kinda hot, and when Rose pulled herself away from her underage lover, weeping pitifully and begging him not to tell anybody what had happened, it was hard not to feel for this messed-up, relentlessly horny woman. Besides, this seemed like a one-time transgression born of a moment of weakness. But just six years earlier in Smooth Talk, Dern starred as a teenage girl whose flirting aroused entirely too much interest from Treat Williams. In this movie, Williams was the messed-up, relentlessly horny one putting the moves on a kid, and there was nothing sympathetic about him. We didn't care if he was weak or messed-up or if this was a one-time thing, we just wanted him to go away. When he pursued Dern, nobody was tittering.
In the past few months, the movies have been full of grown ladies getting busy with boys. We had Kim Basinger dallying with Jon Foster, her 16-year-old surrogate son in The Door in the Floor. But Kim was getting over the grief of losing her own son, and Jeff Bridges kinda pushed her into sleeping with the kid. Besides, they were all trapped in John Irving-Land, where everybody has weird, inappropriate sex with everybody else. And so we forgave her. We also saw not just one but two movies about women well into their 30s, falling for boys who were—maybe—the reincarnations of the women's dead lovers: P.S. was a reasonably charming indie that had Laura Linney enjoying sloppy sex with That '70s Show's Topher Grace (not quite jailbait, although he was a toddler when Linney was in college), while Birth was a spooky drama that put Nicole Kidman in a bathtub with a 10-year-old boy. Even with a scene that had Kidman flirtatiously asking the boy if he could "fulfill her needs," Birth aroused only a minor controversy. My lord, reverse the genders on this sucker, and people would have been burning down the theaters.
Don't get me wrong: just like most of you reading this, on some level I do find the idea of a man bedding a girl far more disturbing than a woman bedding a boy. I'm just not sure why it is that we feel this way. It's true, some boys do dream of having sex with their teachers . . . but so do some schoolgirls. Do we still imagine that girls are more fragile than boys? That seems like a profoundly silly idea in 2005, when the media is saturated with images of strong, take-charge, pumped-up, in-your-face teenage girls, while boys seem increasingly sullen, adrift and obsolete. Perhaps this idea that man/girl sex is more reprehensible than woman/boy sex is wired into our brains on the genetic level, and it evolved to ensure that males wouldn't impregnate females who weren't sufficiently mature to bear offspring successfully. But if that's so, why aren't teenage boys genetically programmed with any aversion to knocking up their classmates? And for that matter, why do girls become fertile so early?
Nothing about any of this makes sense. In the end, there is but one thing I know for certain about human sexuality: I don't know anything for certain about human sexuality. But I do know something about the movies—in the dark, we are free to be as turned on or terrified or amused or disgusted as we like, by whatever we like. It doesn't say much for humanity that our heads are so full of rape and murder. But it is to our credit that we've dreamed up this amazing art form, where our ids are allowed to run riot, 50 feet high and in living color. And thusly sated, we can hopefully step back out into the daylight and live another day in which we don't murder our neighbors or sleep with our students.
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