Objects of desire

Our consumer culture says, 'Follow your heart,' and Mary Kay LeTourneau did. Oops.

The shocker for me in the Mary Kay LeTourneau case didn't come when she and her 14-year-old lover (or former lover) were caught together in her car in the wee hours last Tuesday. Nor four days later when, on suspicion that they planned to run away together, she was sent to serve the seven-and-a-half-year suspended prison sentence she received last August for "raping" the lad.

The shocker came on Tuesday night, when the TV cut to a commercial break. The spot employed a classic cross-generational gimmick: A young boy, perhaps 8 years old, primps in front of the mirror, slicking his hair back and winking precociously, while the Bee Gees pant: "You can tell by the way I use my walk, I'm a woman's man, no time to talk. Ah-ah-ah-ah, staying alive.... " The disco studlet struts into his second-grade classroom, spinning and prancing as the little girls swoon, right up to his teacher, who is equally enthralled. He gives one final Travolta twirl and hands her a Dr Pepper. She is blond, WASPish, thirtyish. She looks like Mary Kay LeTourneau.

KCPQ next cuts to a news tease: "In the aftermath of the LeTourneau case, people are asking—are we too soft on sex predators? Tune in to news at 10 with John Yaeger in Olympia."

Most of the time, when they aren't lathering over sex offenders, TV and our other designated cultural conveyors work overtime to sexualize childhood. Long before they can spell "puberty," our kids get Madonna and Michael Jackson (a former 8-year-old heartthrob, and a cautionary fable unto himself), Baywatch and 90210, Salt 'n' Pepa, Marky Mark, and the Spice Girls. Barbie gets Ken, Macauley Culkin gets My Girl. Grade-schoolers get makeup and miniskirts, bomber jackets and aftershave before they even shave. We teach them to primp and coo at how cute and "grown-up" they are.

Just as nutrition has pushed puberty back, we have defined precocity downward, setting the thresholds of sexual awareness ever younger. Then, when kids act on that awareness, we flip out. Get ready when you're 10, we say. Then wait until you're 20. The old double bind.

Are the entertainment and marketing whizzes trying to nurture young Lotharios and Lolitas, or "groom" victims for the pedophiles? No, they just want to sell to kids the way they've always sold to adults. And they know the surest way to sell—to induce perceived needs, plumbing the wells of vanity and insecurity—is through sex. A sexualized child is a consumer child.

Or rather, the perfect consumer is an anxious, aroused, libido-struck 18-year-old. A potent constellation of forces—marketing, medical advances, the baby boomer glut, divorce and second starts, the prevalence of mass-marketed youth culture—conspires to keep aging adults in that state as well. Precocious adolescents and perpetual adolescents. At one end, JonBenet Ramsey; at the other, Bill Clinton and Mick Jagger. Is it any surprise that the two vectors should converge in the LeTourneau case? Or that this convergence should inspire such fury and calls for retribution? We hate most what we fear we too could be.

LeTourneau scares us upstanding citizens because she didn't just cross the line: She smudged it. Pundits and politicians decry her with the fury of jilted lovers. They feel betrayed, feel as though they gave her a break because she's a petite, winsome woman rather than a scary, hairy male predator. State Sen. Pam Roach, who has long angled to overturn the Special Sexual Offender Sentencing Act that diverted LeTourneau (and thousands of other first-time offenders) from prison to treatment, paints her as a poster-child "sexual predator."

That's absurd. Far from stealthily targeting victims of opportunity, LeTourneau has fixated on one love object with astonishing indiscretion; she was caught with the kid where she'd most likely be spotted, sitting in her car near her own house. She's been steadfast and (given the pressures to show repentance) forthright to the point of self-destruction. But the zeitgeist ain't with her; she gets busted just as Karla Faye Tucker gets zapped in Texas and feminists demand equal access to the joint and the gas chamber. No more barbed-wire ceiling. Woe to any governor or prosecutor who lets a pretty woman off.

Yes, Letourneau screwed up, grandly. Yes, sex with children is wrong; it robs them of their childhood—or what childhood isn't already stolen by adult purveyors of drugs, violence, and vicarious violence, from Hollywood thrill pimps to gun nuts defending every kid's right to live in fear of a Tech-9. LeTourneau's motives seem more sincere.

And yes, she's also screwed up, in keeping with family tradition; her father, a far-right Christian congressman, kept a mistress and secret family. But what ardent lover isn't? The line is thinly drawn between passion and pathology. LeTourneau fulfilled, with more than usual zeal, the categorical imperative of bourgeois popular culture, urged by every movie from Pocahontas to Good Will Hunting to The English Patient. "Follow your heart," as we sang in our old high school musical, "whenever it calls to you, wherever it wants you to go. . . . " Throw Daddy's money back in his face. Split on job and family, sell out Egypt to the Nazis—whatever true love takes. When was the last time a Hollywood hero gave it up for a higher good? Casablanca? Perhaps LeTourneau's probation should have included a ban on Leonard Cohen records. No more of that "Ain't No Cure for Love" stuff.

The terms she did get were (as even her pursuers have triumphantly noted) doomed to fail: No contact with minors (though no one alleged any danger to other kids). No dating anyone who lives with minors. Disclose your "sexual deviancy" before sex. Any partner must likewise undergo therapy. She was supposed to get over a life-wrecking relationship while effectively barred from any new relationship. Another double bind.

Funny thing is, probation ordinarily forbids what might have worked: The traditional fresh start someplace else. "There might be other ways to deal with this," says Dr. Fred Berlin, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and director of its Sexual Disorders Clinic, who has followed the case. "She could be sent elsewhere, out of the community, for treatment."

But even many who sympathize with LeTourneau concedes she must go to the slammer, for deterrence and simply to keep her and the boy apart. Berlin questions both arguments: "Is the priority that she be taught a lesson or made an example, or that the situation be repaired? I'm not sure a bunch of women in their thirties are going to get involved with adolescents if she doesn't go to prison. [Nor that] keeping them apart completely isn't perpetuating the situation. People could try to turn this into a relationship with a more positive outcome." Anyone who's been through a break-up knows how fraught and messy they are—but the worst are the abrupt and blameful ones, with no chance at a non-romantic reconciliation.

If the only contact they could have was illicit, a juvenile scheme to flee with the baby might seem the next natural step. Such speculations, like all matters of the heart, are notoriously uncertain. But still we claim certainty. We demand that psychotherapy work like penicillin, else sex offenders are "untreatable." We insist on what the boy keeps denying: that he was raped, that he's a victim. (In law, if not in the popular mind, the crime "rape of a child" rests on the victim's age, not force or coercion.)

But might this insistence itself be an assault? "We tell these children they're damaged goods," says Berlin. "That he's been irreparably harmed is certainly not the message I'd want to give. I don't think he should be treated as a nonentity, whose views don't matter." If he won't repent the relationship, will he at least feel guilty when LeTourneau goes to prison because he paged her? Now we're making progress!

Another double bind. We try younger and younger children as adults, presuming that at 13, 12, even 11, they are capable of choice when they kill—but not when they love. We have it both ways, and the kids are damned as children, and as adults.

Other SW stories on LeTourneau

Light of my life, fire of my loins

What's unsettling about LeTourneau isn't how she 'preys'; it's how she doesn't. by Fred Moody

Was it rape?

Or was it something different? by Kathryn Robinson

 
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