This week, two things happened.
First, I read Alissa Nutting’s Tampa in one sitting, cover-to-fuzzy-cover. Two days later, one of my good friends from undergrad was arrested for crimes not dissimilar to the ones Nutting’s protagonist commits.
Maybe I’m like BOMB interviewer Micaela Morrissette in my admission that I was very turned on by Tampa. Reading it in a Books-a-Million café was a little… problematic… for me, I will freely admit. Yes, what happens between Celeste & her students is illegal & is psychologically damaging on more than one front, but I still didn’t feel too guilty for finding it hot. I didn’t feel like I should be locked up for blushing & tellingly shaking my foot from side-to-side as I read some of the more graphic passages.
After I finished the book, I knew I would be its adamant defender. The prose & pacing are marvelous, first off. But beyond that, the book detailed a type of relationship I have some experience with (in Jack’s role, not Celeste’s), & I’ve always taken the unpopular stance on these kinds of relationships. I think age of consent laws are deeply problematic & that the media’s/legal system’s treatment of cases like the one Nutting details often serve to do little more than treat women & girls as precious, pure little cherubs whom we have an obligation to protect from their own desires.
This is not to say that I don’t think rape & sexual abuse exist, nor that they shouldn’t be investigated & prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But I do think there is a marked difference between what’s technically labeled pedophilia &/or hebephilia & ephebophilia. Legally, pedophilia is an interest in minors below the age of consent, regardless of mental, physical, or emotional development. In research terms, pedophilia is an interest in pre-pubescents, hebephilia is an interest in early-pubescents, & ephebophilia is an interest in late-pubescents.
Ephebophilia is an interest in those who are 14/15-19 years old—the age group that blurs the age of consent laws in many states/countries. In Celeste’s case, Jack & Boyd were 14—hitting that border between hebephilia & ephebophilia. That’s the classification I find most interesting.
In an interview with BOMB, Nutting brilliantly notes the problem with discussing such situations only in terms of sex scandals—because there’s “a temptation on behalf of society to place them in one of two clear-cut boxes: saying they’re just like child/adult crimes or they’re just like adult/adult sexual relationships,” the real issues aren’t ever addressed. She continues to explain that, “if we try to warn teenagers about adult sexual predators the same way we try to warn eight-year-olds about adult sexual predators, without addressing the possibility of arousal, then when teenagers feel arousal, they’re not going to be able to read the situation as predatory.”
That’s the problem—we can’t openly discuss it. Does the crime necessitate the fantasy as a defense mechanism wherein the victim can somewhat protect himself/herself against the psychological violence of the situation? Or does the fantasy exist so pointedly that it leaves an open, sometimes even welcoming space, for the crime?
After I finished Tampa, I was armed & ready with these arguments—that the language & rhetoric we use to discuss these cases cannot be the same language & rhetoric we use to discuss cases of those who sexually abuse or assault kindergarteners; that there are complex issues of power, gender, enculturation, sexuality, class all wound up here that we can’t ignore; that reductivist arguments that make all people of a certain age or gender victims & all people of another age or gender predators are counterproductive in this discourse.
That was Monday. And then on Wednesday night, I was at a party when I got a message from an undergrad friend—sending me a news link & asking if I’d seen this, telling me how shocked he was, how I should know about it. On my phone, I saw the link’s title—something about a middle school teacher from our mutual hometown being arrested for sleeping with students. Perhaps unfairly, my first thought went to one of my public school teachers—a notorious flirt who had once dated an ex-student. I opened the link, however, & immediately struggled for breath.
It was someone who had been a great friend in undergrad—someone whose number is in my phone, someone who is my Facebook friend, with whom I have countless photos tagged. Someone with whom I’ve driven aimlessly & had barbecues with, someone I’ve jokingly cuddled with while watching crude TV shows. Someone I’ve gotten drunk with, had intellectual conversations with, worked on committees with. Someone I’ve kissed… & kissed… & then some.
I instantly thought back to one particular evening where he & I sat in a favorite professor’s office, sipping red wine from Dixie Cups & talking coded shit about the manipulative guy I was seeing. We made fun of one another in that anxiously flirtatious way people with icebergs’ worth of sexual tension between them do, & waxed self-important about our academic fraternity—I was on my way out as president & was handing the role over to him.
That’s where my mind had to go as I read the news article. I couldn’t figure out how to reconcile phrases like “sex abuse” & “sexual exploitation” with the friend I once knew. Rather than figure out the differences between Class C & Class D felonies, I stumbled into the bathroom (for my own sake, it was probably a godsend that I was already fairly drunk) & stared blankly at myself in the mirror.
That was the first moment I felt guilty for being turned on by Tampa.
I couldn’t figure out what to do… so I took a selfie. I don’t know how I thought the “toaster” filter would help me make sense of anything, but I needed to change what I saw staring at me in the mirror. I saw the 13-year-old girl who—over a decade ago—was dangerously close to being on the receiving end of those legalese buzzwords all because I liked being a little Lolita & never expected an adult to cater to that desire. I saw the 17-year-old girl who went to the police over a grown man like these two brave middle schoolers did. I saw the 24-year-old girl who thinks age of consent laws are bullshit & never fails to get off on a student-teacher fantasy. I wanted Instagram to pretty up the realities of my own experiences with sexual predators. If I put an orange halo around the face of that 24-year-old who is, in so many ways, still the 13-year-old who likes to play Lolita, maybe I could protect her. If I made a flirtatious face for the internet to enjoy, maybe the double-tapped hearts would give me the validation I was denied as a 17-year-old when a teacher violated my physical & mental spaces.
But maybe that photo was really meant to hold 24-year-old me responsible, saying, “Here—this is you. A novel about statutory rape makes you hot & bothered & you think Catholic schoolgirl uniforms are sexy. You are complicit.”
I thought about how a year or so ago, I ran into this friend at a hipster bar & the two of us ended up huddled alone on a couch, gossiping. We lowered our voices & eyes in the dim light, bragging about our conquests in a way that we knew was meant to make one another jealous—though I doubt either of us really knew why. I thought about how he walked me to my car & let me get my hand on the door handle before he made the move to kiss me & then texted me goodnight as soon as my car was out of eyeshot.
I read the article again & called my mom, trembling. The details were sparse, but it provided enough of them for me to be unable to sit still, I was so uncomfortable. I kept thinking about what he’d done to those girls, the way the newspaper made it sound like such a… scheme. Someone at the party offered that her first sexual experience was at the age of 13 & was with an older guy, & she wasn’t scarred from it—that maybe it wouldn’t be as tragic for them as I was assuming. On any other day, I may very well have agreed with her. But on that night, I couldn’t even consider that possibility.
Morrissette writes of Tampa that “Because Celeste’s condition seems, to some extent, to draw on her memories of her own sexual awakening as a teenage girl, I’m forced to admit that I, too, have lascivious memories of teenage boys. What she wants is something that once, not so long ago, was perfectly acceptable for her to have.”
I lost my virginity to someone who was nine years older than me. My once-friend is 23—the girls in the case are 13 & 14. Was my partner “creepy” for being 29 & having sex with a 20 year old? Not so long ago for him, a 20-year-old would have been a perfectly normal age to pursue. I know the logic can’t be slid across the table to my once-friend’s case. There is a huge gap in maturity & life experience & emotional awareness (& legality) between 13 & 20. I know this. But just like with Nutting’s 20-something Celeste, not too long ago, sex with teenage boys would have been a perfectly acceptable & normal thing for her to engage in. But what’s missing?
At least partially, I think it’s the fact that Celeste never realized that being sexually desired did not necessitate having sex. Because Jack returned her interest, because he desired her back, for her, that meant it was perfectly okay to sleep with him. In her mind, she wasn’t harming him. But Nutting has a point when, in the BOMB interview, she asks, “Are the same acts [Celeste engages in with Jack] somehow less wrong [with Boyd] because of Boyd’s reaction? Is an underage victim’s reaction relevant to the act’s criminality? How capable are fourteen-year-olds […] of weighing in on the psychological harm that’s being done to them, or predicting how these events will psychologically affect them in the future?”
That’s what’s jarred me so much over the past 24 hours—it might be tempting to read a police report in which 13-year-olds talk about how they wanted to have sex with him & compare them to Celeste & Boyd. But just because Boyd actively encouraged Celeste’s advances, that doesn’t mean his 14-year-old brain was able to fully conceptualize what it really meant to do that.
These girls might tell the police that they encouraged his behavior, but it still stands—he knew better. This was his doing. He had the power to restrain himself. But like Celeste, he chose not to. I know I don’t know the intricacies of his case, so I can’t make a full judgment. But I’m finding myself really shocked at how preoccupied I’ve been by this all day—& by just how nauseated it’s made me. This was a friend. This wasn’t “nameless faceless rapist.” This wasn’t “Suspect A.” This was my friend.
It’s forced me to come face-to-ugly-face with the stark realization that people who commit acts like this are not bogeymen hiding in the bushes. Cognitively, I know this, but the fact that I was so taken by surprise by this makes me extraordinarily paranoid. I feel like that 17-year-old again—the girl who lived with the anxiety that every single human being she passed on the street could be a rapist. I’ve felt that acute paranoia all day long—at the grocery store, at the gym, everywhere.
This guy wasn’t a shadowy figure lurking behind a trench coat & offering lollipops to little girls—he was my outgoing, sarcastic, ambitious, adorable friend, someone I readily welcomed into my life. And he committed 11 counts of third degree sexual abuse. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to reconcile that fact—not because of him in particular, but just because this has brought up so many terrors I lived with when I was not so far apart in age from his victims.
I look at that Instagram selfie again & wonder if it’s evident to anyone else that under the fancy effects & cheap necklaces, I’m still scared. I’m still 13 & I’m still 17 & I’m still 24. I’m still scared of the predators I’ve known, the ones I haven’t realized I’ve known, & the ones I’m almost certainly yet to know.