Aside from the prurient interest, the Polanski case is fascinating because of the sheer dunderheadedness it brings out in Polanski’s defenders. The man took a thirteen-year-old girl whose mother was trying to make a career for her as a model, offered to take photos of her, asked her to take her clothing off, gave her drugs, and repeatedly had sex with her (that much is conceded) over her protest (according to the victim’s account). There’s really nothing to say in his defense that isn’t nonsense. And a depressing number of people seem to be willing to show how liberated or subtle-minded they are by spouting such nonsense.
I understand why the Hollywood crowd is rallying around one of their own*, though in doing so they confirm all the charges the right wing throws at them and thereby toss away influence that might have been used in a better cause. But what’s William Saletan’s excuse? He put up two posts on the topic on successive days, one even dumber than the other.
Saletan, while he’d like “to punch the guy in the mouth,” thinks it would be wrong to punish Polanski as a pedophile. After all, says Saletan, diddling little children is sick, but doing it with pubescent girls is understandable:
Having sex at 13 is a bad idea. But if you’re pubescent, it might be, in part, your bad idea. Having sex with a 13-year-old, when you’re 40, is scummy. (Personally, I’d be stricter. If I ran a college, I’d discipline professors for sleeping with freshmen.) But it doesn’t necessarily make you the kind of predator who has to be locked up. A guy who goes after 5-year-old girls is deeply pathological. A guy who goes after a womanly body that happens to be 13 years old is failing to regulate a natural attraction. That doesn’t excuse him. But it does justify treating him differently.
Huh? I’m sorry, but this is gibberish. What is it about the “naturalness” of the attraction that makes acting on it less morally culpable? In terms of sheer culpability, you might flip it around: it’s easier to feel sorry for the poor guy whose “deeply pathological” nature means that only gets turned on by little children than it is for someone who simply gives in to a temptation he might easily have resisted, since the world is full of people he desires and can have sex with on the right side of the law. In terms of deterrence, it’s more important to deter harmful behavior that more people might want to engage in.
Is there evidence that a man who gets caught once having sex with a pubescent girl is less likely to do so again than a man who gets caught once having sex with a pre-teen? I’m not aware of any. So why is it less urgent to lock up someone like Polanski? Surely it can’t count as a moral argument that Saletan feels empathy for Polanski, as he wouldn’t for what he thinks of as a “real” child molester, because Saletan might have felt the same temptation. By that standard, we shouldn’t punish poor Bernie Madoff too harshly, because it’s “natural” to want money.
The only premise that would fill in Saletan’s argument is that it’s not that bad for a 13-year-old girl to be molested by a 40-year-old man. I suppose Saletan is entitled to his opinion on that point. But his opinion isn’t the law.
The law makes what Polanski admitted to doing – having sex with a minor – a very serious crime. Though he was clearly guilty of statutory rape (since the girl was under the age where her consent, even if she gave it, would have any validity) and rape-by-drugs, and very likely guilty of straight-up rape, Polanski was allowed to plead to a lesser but still very serious charge of having sex with a minor (which could have applied to sex with somewhat older girl but still below the age of consent) to spare the victim the trauma of having to testify.
Polanski then took advantage of the fact that sex with a minor is not a crime in France [see comment for corrective details], and therefore someone convicted of that crime can’t be extradited from France, to skip out on his sentencing, after getting word that the judge might not give him the slap on the wrist he thought he’d bargained for.
Saletan thinks that the 1970s, when a judge might have cut someone like Polanski some slack, were simply capable of finer moral distinctions than we Puritanical moderns can handle. Well, I suppose that’s one way to think about it. Maybe so. Whatever distinction Saletan thinks he’s making is certainly too subtle for me.
* Though I’m glad to see one of my favorite starlets isn’t having any.