October 2, 2009

Why the Roman Polanski Case Really Does Matter

Posted in Child Sexual Abuse, Current Events, Drug Facilitated Sexual Assault (Rape Drugs), movies, Rape Culture, Victim Blaming at 9:40 pm by sacetalks

This week, it’s been almost impossible to miss the media coverage surrounding Roman Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland. After evading justice for three decades, Polanski may finally face the sentencing hearing he skipped out on when he fled to France after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl.

One might assume that people would celebrate a fugitive rapist finally being brought to justice. But that would be forgetting the pervasive influence of rape culture–the mindset that says it’s okay to drug and then force sexual contact on a child. Hollywood celebrities, along with many of their European counterparts, signed on to a petition demanding that Polanski be freed. Some names in that list, including Woody Allen, aren’t really surprising. Others, such as Tilda Swinton, are definitely unexpected.

And then there are the other defenders, including Whoopi Goldberg, who argued that it wasn’t “rape-rape” on The View. She attempted to clarify her statements the next day in a telephone call to the Today Show, claiming that she was just trying to address the actual crime Polanski had been convicted of: unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Whoopi’s opinion seems to be that statutory rape isn’t really rape. The reality is that the girl was well under the age of consent, which was 16 years old in California at the time of the case (it’s now 18) and that in the grand jury transcripts (warning: graphic descriptions, some people may find the testimony triggering), the survivor describes being given champagne and quaaludes before the assault. She also describes saying no and trying to get away from Polanski multiple times. Any way you look at it — age, drug facilitation, the survivor communicating no — there’s simply no consent. I’m not sure how you can get much more “rape-rape” than that.

So many people try to defend Polanski’s crime in some way. They say the girl’s mother was complicit, that she was pushing her daughter on the director. In reality, it doesn’t matter how much the mother might have encouraged anything. Polanski is still the one responsible for his choice to sexually assault a child. They say that Polanski survived so much trauma — the Holocaust, his wife Sharon Tate’s murder — and it’s true that he survived significant tragedy. But that explanation is an insult to the millions of people who are victims of trauma, who lose loved ones to murder and survive genocides, and who still live compassionate, caring lives where they somehow manage to not sexually assault anyone.

There are allegations of judicial misconduct in the case, of questions around sentencing and other problems. However, the way for Polanski to resolve those problems was to face the court system, not to flee the country. The original judge in the case is dead now, so Polanski’s sentence will be imposed by someone else anyhow. Questions around sentencing don’t change the fact that Polanski plead guilty to the crime as part of a plea bargain that meant he didn’t have to face much more serious charges which would have seen him face life in prison–no matter what, he would have faced a much lighter sentence than the original charges would have carried. The perception that his 42 days in a psychiatric institution constituted a sentence is false. Polanski was there for evaluation before his final sentencing hearing (not a bizarre occurence). If there was any misconduct, it was and is up to Polanski and his lawyers to address that through the court process. Fleeing the country was a criminal act on top of the crime for which he’d already plead guilty.

Then there are those who say that because the girl, now an adult woman, has asked for the case to be dropped, Polanski should be allowed to walk free. I feel deep sadness and compassion for what she has been through — the media intrusion into her life, the constant debate and analysis of her testimony, the violation of privacy on top of the violation of self that she experienced — but the justice system doesn’t just act on behalf of one victim of crime. The system acts on behalf of society, and in this case, it really is acting on behalf of all survivors. How we respond to this case tells the many, many other survivors out there what we really think of what happened to them.

When people defend Polanski, they tell every survivor who’s listening that their experiences and their lives are worth less than a few films. When we as a culture refuse to see what is happening or make excuses, we tell survivors that they don’t count. It’s not surprising that people don’t come forward when they hear people condone rape and blame the victim. And when we let Polanski off for what he did, we also tell offenders what we think of them. We tell them that what they’ve done or will do is okay, and that they too can just walk away and not face justice.

When we talk about the Polanski case, we’re not just talking about one assault on one girl on one night. We’re talking about how we as a society view sexual violence. I can only hope that we voice the strong condemnation this crime deserves.

A couple of excellent responses to Polanski’s defenders:

Rex Murphy, “Hollywood’s Strange Morals”, The National

Kate Harding, “Reminder: Roman Polanski raped a child”, Salon

Melissa Silverstein, “Does Being an “Artist” Trump Being a Rapist?”, Women and Hollywood

Sign the petition to prosecute Roman Polanski.

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