The arrest in Switzerland of Roman Polanski, and his possible extradition to the United States to stand trial for the rape of a minor, has stirred a surprising public controversy. While many commentators have expressed satisfaction that he might be called to account for his crime, others, especially those in Hollywood, have come to Polanski’s defense. The controversy itself is not so surprising as the character of the defense. After all, it is no shock that many would celebrate the prospect of a long delayed reckoning in the case of a child rapist. At the same time, it is not unheard of that Polanski would have his defenders, given the long time that has elapsed since his misdeed, the distinguished nature of his career as a director, and the fact that he seems to have kept out of serious trouble with the law for the last three decades.
What is surprising, however, is to find Polanski’s partisans reacting with indignation to his arrest and possible prosecution, as if he were a victim of some great injustice. It is understandable that some would feel pity for him. Here is a prominent and accomplished man, who committed a terrible crime many years ago, and who finds that it has, near the end of his life, finally caught up with him. Stated in this way, Polanski’s story sounds like the outline of a tragedy, and tragedy, as Aristotle observed, tends by its nature to evoke pity in the audience. Such pity need not be rooted in moral complacency, but in an admirable appreciation of the human frailty that we share with the wrongdoer”in our sense that we, too, might have been capable of such things, and might have come to face a similar punishment. Indeed, confronted with the spectacle of Polanski’s arrest, we might be moved to pity, and to a profitable self-reflection, by the realization that we all have done things for which a just reckoning is due, and that we will have to face that reckoning here or hereafter.
Pity, yes. But indignation? This is strange, and it compels us to ask how we can account for the inclination of some in Hollywood righteously to condemn those who would bring Polanski to justice. The reasons are no doubt complex, and they probably include a sincere but misguided compassion”one that pushes pity too far by not only sympathizing with the wrongdoer but excusing his conduct. Nevertheless, this controversy should not pass without our observing that Hollywood surely has deep self-interested reasons to defend Roman Polanski. Put simply, Polanski’s sins are inextricably bound up with Hollywood’s own sins. If he is guilty, Hollywood is, in some measure, guilty as well.
Most obviously, if Polanski deserves to be legally prosecuted after all this time, then he certainly also deserves, and has deserved all along, the informal and lesser punishment of exclusion from decent society. This is, I think, the sense that most people would have of the matter. I teach in a university, and I suspect that if somehow a child rapist who had evaded prosecution were found to be on the faculty, not many people would be signing up to co-teach classes with him or inviting him to serve on committees. Hollywood, however, has not shunned Polanski. He has rather been treated, not just recently but for some time, as a fellow artist, a worthy collaborator, and an honored creator. If Polanski is guilty of some terribly immoral act, then Hollywood has itself been guilty of an unseemly (at least) moral complacency. And since there appears to be no way to deny that he actually committed the crime in question, Hollywood’s only way to maintain its sense of self-respect is to act as if what he did is not that serious”and accordingly to act as if an effort to prosecute him must be a monstrous injustice.
These observations, however, do not explain why Polanski was not shunned in the first place. No doubt there are some acts for which Hollywood would declare even a gifted artist to be persona non grata . We must ask, then, why Polanski’s entertainment industry colleagues have behaved all along as if his crime were not a weighty matter. I would suggest the following explanation: the embrace of sexual liberation necessarily diminishes our horror for rape, and contemporary Hollywood has been nothing if not ardent in its embrace of sexual liberation.
Traditional sexual morality depended on the assumption that human sexuality possessed an objective moral nature and seriousness that all human beings were obliged to respect and that society itself was entitled to protect through law and custom. Sexual liberation rejected such notions, claiming instead that in matters of sex the acts of consenting adults were none of society’s business. That is, the sexual liberation movement denied sex all intrinsic moral content and reduced sexual morality to the requirement that the consent of the participating parties be respected. The problem, however, is that once traditional sexual morality has been swept away, it is not clear that a solid respect for consent can be maintained.
Sexual liberation’s inability to sustain its initial insistence on consent can be traced to a certain tension, if not an outright contradiction, in the case for sexual liberation. On the one hand, we are told that what consenting adults do together is no one else’s business because sex is no big deal. Society was wrong all along to think that it mattered enough to regulate with such strictness. On the other hand, the very notion that sex is no big deal seems to be undermined by the case for sexual liberation itself. If sex is really no big deal, then why does it matter that it should be liberated? Indeed, if sex is of no great importance, it is hard to see why the case for its unshackling should be made with such energy and even indignation. This observation reminds us that sex is definitely a big deal at least in the sense that it is a powerful human desire that most people experience as essential to their happiness. When the sexual urge demands, they are powerfully tempted to give in. Hence the power of the sexual liberation movement’s appeal. The problem, however, is that once we have sacrificed so much to this powerful appetite, it is not clear why we should not sacrifice everything. If the demand for sexual pleasure is so compelling that we can throw overboard moral principles that extend back to the very roots of our civilization, it is not clear why we would insist that it stop short and respect the consent of individuals. In short, sexual liberation conjured up a spirit of moral nihilism to liberate the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure, and it is not at all certain that such a spirit can be commanded to behave once it has been summoned.
Moreover, we arrive at the same problematic destination by a different path when we accept at face value sexual liberation’s insistence that sex is no big deal. For, if sex in itself is really no big deal, then it is hard to see how forcible sex can be a significant concern. Our horror for rape depends to a large extent on a presupposition that was also the basis for the traditional sexual morality that authorized society to regulate even sexual acts between consenting adults: the sense that human sexuality possesses an intrinsic moral dignity”even a sanctity”that no one should degrade. More specifically, it was believed that sex was properly understood as a way of communicating life to new human beings and of communicating a permanent loving commitment between spouses in marriage. The belief in these lofty purposes was the core of the sense of the sanctity of human sexuality. And it was this sense of sanctity that justified both societal disapproval when consenting people wrongly degraded sex from such an act of love to a mere source of pleasure and society’s even greater horror for those who perverted sex so far as to turn it into a means of pleasure through violence.
Sexual liberation seeks to strip sex of this weighty dignity so that adults can enjoy it without any serious moral commitment, yet at the same time insists that such enjoyment may not be pursued in violation of the consent of one’s partner. It is, however, almost impossible to maintain such earnestness about the importance of consent once sex has been stripped of its intrinsic moral content. Of course it is usually wrong for one person to compel another to do something that the latter does not want to do, but we cannot maintain a belief that such compulsion is a very serious wrong unless it is done in relation to something very important. No one would approve if one person forced another at gun point to share a meal or take a walk in the park, but no one would think that either of these wrongs would constitute the same kind of horrific violation as rape.
Similarly, everyone agrees that government should not force citizens to profess beliefs that they do not really hold. Nevertheless, nobody would think that government goes so far wrong in compelling people to say that blue is their favorite color, whether it is or not, as when it forces them to show approval for political or religious beliefs that they do not really hold. We expect freedom of belief and opinion, but we sense that it is especially important in relation to politics and religion because these are matters that are at the core of our humanity. Here, as opposed to matters of mere taste, we cannot easily distinguish violations of our consent from violations of our very selves. So it is with sex. We recoil from rape not just because it involves a violation of a person’s abstract right to consent, but because it does so in relation to something of the deepest human importance. At least, that is how we react so long as we retain our sense that sex is something of the deepest human importance, and not equivalent to a meal or a walk in the park.
There can be little question that many in Hollywood have abandoned the traditional understanding of the sanctity of human sexuality. That abandonment is evident in much of the entertainments that Hollywood makes and sells, in which casual sex is commonly presented as simply unproblematic and part of the normal fabric of life. We reasonably suspect that such assumptions are active in the lives of many of those who write, produce, and market such entertainments. It is little wonder, then, if the members of such a community find it hard to appreciate the gravity of Roman Polanski’s offense.
Carson Holloway is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is the author most recently of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press).
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