Monday, October 05, 2009

A few thoughts on a difficult subject...

I am definitely not going to comment directly on the recent brouhaha following Roman Polanski's arrest in Switzerland since I don't know all of the relevant facts and discussing it doesn't seem to serve much of a purpose aside from wallowing in the pain and misery of both Polanski and his victim. The whole issue did make me think about the huge gap between Americans and Europeans when it comes to sexual mores and at what point we consider a person to be an adult (in cultural if not legal terms). After teaching for a couple years at an American university I am constantly struck by how childish many American 18 year olds are compared to their European peers, and this seems mostly to stem from the way they are treated by their culture and their parents. An American teenager is considered a child up until 18 when they accrue all relevant legal rights (except drinking, of course, that most evil of activities) and usually leave home for college or work; at which point they completely loose themselves in sex and drugs after years of being treated like children by their parents. A European teenager, on the other hand, will begin working much earlier and be considered somewhat independent by the time they're 16. The process seems much more gradual.

This is also reflected in what is commonly called the "age of consent" in different countries. The United States seem split between putting this age at 16 or 18 (27 states, I believe, have it at 16) while most of Europe puts it at 15 (there's a half-thoughtful, half-creepy article on the subject here: My native country of Iceland is among those who puts the age at 15, although cases are hardly ever prosecuted unless one party is above the age of 18 (and there is no question as to whether or not the act was consensual). I'm not saying this is preferable or more morally justifiable than the 18 year old age limit in many of the United States (including Wisconsin, where I currently live). I can safely say that if I had a 15 year old daughter who was seduced by some 43 year old it would be a cue for me to dust off the old shotgun and go Charles Bronson on the guy. I do think that the whole Polanski case and the fervor it has caused throughout the world is first and foremost a projection of our own anxieties and hang-ups regarding our sexuality. We live, after all, in the most schizophrenic culture ever known to man, where sex is flaunted on every billboard and on every TV station and where pornography is a huge industry while at the same time we are ashamed to talk openly about sex and are dismayed by public displays of sensuality or even affection (Michelle Obama and her shapely arms, being a case in point). This is not to say I am excusing Polanski in any way. It seems clear to me that he committed a crime which merited prosecution and indictment. But our rage and confusion seems to have less to do with him than it does our own cultural psyche.

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