This is a guest post, submitted by longtime regular HetPat comment box warrior ThatGuy.
Ally writes: I haven’t read this book and not sure I want to, but do recall the coverage of the Lafave case which inspired it. Just a few weeks ago the Daily Mail ran a highly sympathetic profile of her, sparked by a new biography by a self-described ‘friend.’ It is worth noting that the Mail piece described her conviction as a “sex scandal” and her crimes as “indiscretions.” You will notice the words “criminal” “paedophile” “child sexual abuse” or for that matter any kind of “abuse” are entirely absent. I think this makes ThatGuy’s case all the more relevant and compelling.]
CONTENT NOTE: Child sex abuse.
Recently I read ‘Tampa,’ a fictional account of an attractive 20-something teacher who has sex with underage boys. I’m not exactly first to the party on this, the book came out in 2013, and was strongly inspired by the real case of Debra Lafave which happened earlier still. (The author, Alissa Nutting, went to the same school as Lafave).
The book in short: attractive 26-year-old Celeste Price starts her first permanent teaching job. She grooms and then has a lot of graphic, gratuitous sex with one of her 14-year-old students. After a few near-misses, her current victim moves away to live with his mother, and Celeste grooms and abuses a new 14-year-old. She gets caught, goes to trial, and gets a non-custodial sentence. She spends the epilogue in a new location with a new identity, having sex with new teenage boys.
In interviews, Nutting hints that she wrote the book as something of a commentary on the double standards to which we hold male and female sexual offenders.
The book is pretty gratuitous, it’s a little telling that most media coverage focused on the extensive graphic depictions of sex rather than the paedophile protagonist, and ultimately I felt somewhat frustrated with how it dealt with sexual abuse of underage boys, despite the author’s comments.
That said, the book serves as a useful case study of how child sexual abuse of boys by women is viewed by an audience sympathetic to the victims.
The book falls into a pretty big pitfall right off the bat – Celeste’s victims are portrayed as enthusiastically-consenting partners. Now I’m not saying that children would universally reject sexual contact in this case (If Ms SexyHott were to try to initiate a sexual relationship with 14-year-old me, I doubt I would have refused) but it ends up treating the stereotype of the perpetually horny teenage boy as an unquestioned truth. I’m sure this won’t be surprising to most of you, but for all the bravado and sex talk you might get from teenagers, they can and often do have interests and priorities beyond sex. At fourteen I was thinking about videogames, how to save up enough money to go see a film with mates, how to pass my exams, transformers, what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, trying to be funny and reading pulp fantasy books. There’s no real thought put into the conflicts that would arise between a child and an adult. Conflicts, which given the power an adult teacher has over a child student, would always be biased in the former’s favour. “Want to play videogames instead of having sex? I guess I’ll just make your school life hell”.
The above being said, Nutting does try to be sympathetic, but does so in a fundamentally misguided way. The sexual abuse is never portrayed as harmful in itself, but is instead packaged in other harmful behaviours to make the victims seem more, well, like victims. Of the two of Celeste’s victims that end up in court, one of them seems positively thrilled to brag about having sex with the hot teacher. There isn’t any thought about how encounters like this can effectively set the scene for a child trying to navigate adulthood – how exploitation like this can reverberate through the rest of a person’s sexual life. We’re never really asked to condemn Celeste because she fucks kids, but rather because she lies, cheats and is generally a terrible person while doing so.
On the other side of the coin, the way that the book portrays the sexual offender rather than the victim is not so stellar either. Celeste is something of a caricature criminal, as said, she lies, cheats, drugs people, and does all of this with no regret. I’m strongly reminded of the attitude of certain groups when a (typically male, white) mass shooter rears his head. “He must be sick in the head!” they cry, “there’s nothing that can be done!” Nobody takes ownership of the culture or society that breeds this sort of hate. Similarly, Nutting by portraying Celeste as a moustache twirling cartoon sociopath who is an Incurably Bad Person, dodges any requirement to examine or assign responsibility to anybody for shaping and creating the ‘Celestes’ of this world.
Towards the latter sections of the book, the way that these cases are reported and prosecuted is examined through the lens of Celeste’s trial. The book here closely apes the LaFave case here, even down to the offender’s sexy modelling shots being released to the media. This is also IMO, where Nutting’s best insights come – Celeste’s hotel room is surrounded by angry protesters- all of them “pear shaped Soccer Moms.” But if you browse the comments on similar cases to this, you’ll often find that those minimising the crime are male. Sometimes, you’ll find a male user pointing out the sentencing discrepancy for an equivalent male offender, (usually with the subtext of arguing for more jail time for women in general – I’m looking at you, Mr Davies).
The defence team’s moves lean heavily on patriarchal assumptions about sex and power, The victims are called as witnesses for the defence, and asked to state whether they consented, and enjoyed the encounters. Celeste is given a makeup artist and stylist to make her look as young and innocent as possible in contrast to the teenage boys. It’s perhaps a little ironic how aware the book is at this stage, given that it falls into some of the same patriarchal assumptions that are exposed and manipulated in the trial.
Overall, the attitudes reflected in Tampa aren’t heartening. While there’s clear recognition of some sort of injustice in these cases, that sexist assumptions about what boys are and want and society’s inability to view a young blonde woman as a perpetrator of sexual crimes, there isn’t a recognition that sexually abused boys in these cases are actually victims. Any responsibility of society (patriarchal or otherwise) in nurturing and abetting these criminal behaviours goes unexamined. Sadly, Tampa is indicative that we have only really started to think seriously about these crimes, rather than the last word.