Polanski and the Debate about the Age of Concent

The Polanski case revives debate about the age of consent—and how America stacks up against other countries when it comes to sexual permissiveness.

When I taught "Introduction to American Studies" at Barnard College, I asked my students a question that made me "Enemy Professor No. 9" on the conservative Free Republic website. Roman Polanski's recent arrest reminded me of the public condemnation I received for asking that question: who is too young to have sex with an adult?

One of the most significant but overlooked facts of the Polanski case is that the Los Angeles District Attorney quickly dropped the original rape charge but insisted that Polanski plead guilty to "unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor," a violation of California's age of consent law. Whether Polanski actually forced the girl into sex is still an open question; she has announced that she "said no" but has also asked for the case to be dismissed. Yet it is significant that for 31 years, prosecutors have pursued Polanski across the globe to bring him to justice for only one crime: having sex with someone the state deems to be too young.

Were Polanski to have consensual sex today with a 13-year-old girl in Japan, South Korea, or Spain, it would be perfectly legal according to those countries' codes. In more than 30 other countries, including Austria, Italy, and Lichtenstein, the age of consent is 14.

Were Polanski to have consensual sex today with a 13-year-old girl in the modern, democratic, industrialized nations of Japan, South Korea, or Spain, it would be perfectly legal according to those countries' codes. In more than 30 other countries, including Austria, Italy, and Lichtenstein, the age of consent is 14 (in many cases even younger if both partners are close in age). In France, where Polanski has lived since his conviction and where newspapers and even government officials have defended the director against the "sinister" motivations of American prosecutors, it is 15. Even Americans don't agree on the question. In 27 states, it is legal for an adult of any age to have sex with a 16-year-old, while the rest place the legal age at 17 or 18.

My students were willing to discuss the appropriateness of the 16-18 range, but were resolutely opposed to going any lower. One said she was so disturbed by the Spanish law that she was reconsidering spending her study year abroad in Barcelona.

Marcia Clark: Polanski's Lost AlibiRobert Goolrick: Polanski's Victim and MeRead full coverage of the Polanski scandalMost often my students argued that sexual relations between an adult and a child (whom some defined as anyone under 18, some under 16, and others as the "emotionally immature") necessarily involved the manipulation of the weak by the powerful, which was wrong. But then, I asked, why was it acceptable for adults to cajole and at times physically force children to play sports, wear hipster t-shirts, attend church, wash the dishes, listen to "good" music, obey authority figures, or, as the president of the United States told them directly, to take responsibility for "nothing less than the future of this country"?

Perhaps my being a young, male professor in a room of female undergraduates made the question especially provocative, but I felt that I was onto something that illuminated what I believe to be one of the core cultural assumptions of Americans: sex is like walking in traffic or playing with knives—activities we aggressively coerce children not to do. In American culture, to tell a child about the pleasures of sex is equivalent to discussing the thrill of dodging oncoming cars or handling a meat cleaver. In our sex-education lectures, public service announcements, relatively high age-of-consent laws, and, most importantly, in our silences, we tell children only that sex is dangerous.

What I tried to push my students to understand was that there were Puritans at work underneath the consciousness of their minds, as I believe there are in the minds of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office.

The 13 states—including California—that place the legal age of consent at 18 are in a small minority among the world's sovereignties. Only Tunisia's is higher, at 20.

Though we live in an age of bared breasts at Super Bowls, public flashing by celebrities, and an enormous market for "barely legal" pornography stars, we also live in an age when politicians' careers are destroyed when they have extra-marital affairs, hire prostitutes, and cruise for gay sex in bathrooms, and the First Lady violates the standards of her office by baring her arms in public. It is a deeply conflicted sexual culture, at once libertine and militantly repressive, in which our inner Cotton Mather is forever at war with our inner Larry Flynt.

Mark Geragos & Pat Harris: The Polanski EndgameGerald Posner: Polanski's Next EscapeThe roots of this contradiction may very well be in the taboo we place around the sexuality of children. Not only did Roman Polanski violate that taboo in a brazenly un-American way, but in an interview shortly after he escaped to France he spoke to what it produced:

"If I had killed somebody, it wouldn't have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But … fucking, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to fuck young girls. Juries want to fuck young girls. Everyone wants to fuck young girls!"

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Some of the philosophers we read in my class—especially, and significantly, the French ones—argued that prohibitions on desires only produced even more intense versions of those desires. Could it be that Americans' answers to the question I posed have created the very thing we so fear?

Thaddeus Russell has taught history, philosophy, and American Studies at Columbia University, Barnard College, Eugene Lang College, and the New School for Social Research. He is the author of Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class (Knopf, 2001) and the forthcoming A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010).