Back in April—is it already August?—I wrote a post called Conservatism, neo-Marxism & the Suppression of Sexual Expression, discussing the hostility toward pornography (read erotic desire) couched in the framework of the oppressor and oppressed. In my view, portraying consumers of pornography as oppressors and those in the industry (generally women) as oppressed is ideologically premised and unsupported by any real evidence.
So I was reminded of that essay when listening to today’s Fresh Air interview with Jennifer Fox, director of The Tale. Fox, at several points, was careful to resist being labelled a victim of child sexual abuse, resisting the paradigm of victim-hood. She referred to herself as a survivor. Her dislike of the ‘victim’ label arises from her belief that labeling children victims robs them of their agency—their control. That’s not to say that children are agents of their own abuse, but that she, as a 13 years old, made choices and had reasons for them; and that these reasons, though they were misguided, were also the means by which she comprehended her abuse and came to terms with it.
“There’s a way that adults want to erase their adolescent narratives, and, personally, I think we want to hear them. I was making choices without the ability to understand or without the experience to know what was in front of me, but in my mind I was making choices. It wasn’t like I was a piece of putty. We can allow that this 13-year-old girl has a voice, has agency, but she doesn’t have experience, and that’s why she needs some adult protection. Maybe she can’t recognize the man manipulating her because she doesn’t have the experience to see, but it doesn’t mean she’s stupid. Society wants to erase the voice of teenage girls. Well, fuck, they have voices. They have voices, they have thoughts, they have ambitions.”
Why, at the age of 13 (and well into adulthood) did she never feel ‘abused’ when, as she now unhesitatingly asserts, she very much was? This is the question her film explores.
She also resists calling her abusers rapists. Legally? Yes. But to call them rapists, according to Fox, precludes a more nuanced understanding of the reasons for the sexual predation. In her view, the best way to prevent sexual child abuse is to understand the psychology behind it. Fox asserts, for example, that the man who abused her would not have considered himself a rapist (nor does she), but as someone who was initiating her into sex and sexuality as an experienced and caring adult (rather than a fumbling and inexperienced peer). Of course, that sort of thinking, as she points out, is narcissistic to the point of sociopathy, but comprehensible in a way that the label ‘rape’—a brutal act of physical force—isn’t. She also suggests that the two adults who abused her were likely abused as children.
Adult erotic desire as enjoyed through fantasy, erotica and pornography is in no way comparable to child sexual abuse, but what reminded me of my former post was a shared resistance to shutting down discussions of sex and sexuality with blanket labels that reduce all interactions to victimizer and victim. In my view, this sort of framing makes sex itself the evil, and the result is reflected in a resistance to sex education, sex work, erotica, fantasy and pornography. Among minors, sexual ignorance is touted as preferable to sexual knowledge (despite the well-documented counterproductiveness of the attitude).
The result is a failure to more fully understand, anticipate and prevent the psychological dynamics behind sexual abuse and child sexual abuse. Worse than that, Jennifer Fox asserts, is that turning a child into a victim risks taking from them their sense of agency. Rather than empowered survivors, they’re made into helpless victims.
I’d recommend anyone listen to Terry Gross’s interview with Fox .