Polanski’s Ancient History

Much ado about the arrest of film director Roman Polanski on a 32-year-old charge of having sex with a minor.  French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand says that it doesn’t make any sense to “throw him to the lions” because of “ancient history.”  Some opinion writers go so far as to term his arrest “outrageous.”  Others think it was the right thing to do.

Let’s regain our bearings here.  Mr. Polanski, according to news accounts, gave champagne and drugs to a 13-year-old girl and then had sex with her.  This is no mere technical, statutory rape — it’s not a case of some 19-year-old boy having consensual sex with his 17-year-old girlfriend.  This was a bad act indeed.  He pled guilty to a reduced charge and then fled the country when it looked like a judge was not going to go along with a plea bargain that would have had Polanski serving just 42 days in jail.  Trying to pass this off as “ancient history” seems a bit much.  If we imagine that Polanski were not a famous film director, but some everyday, middle-aged lawyer who seduced a neighbor’s 13-year-old daughter with alcohol and drugs and then had sex with her, I can’t imagine that there would be a lot of sentiment on his side.

As far as I can make out, some people think Polanski should be let off because (a) he’s famous, (b) he’s a great artist, (c) he’s been through a lot in his life, (d) it’s been a long time since he committed the crime, (e) the victim has forgiven him and would rather the whole thing just went away, and (f) there was some governmental misconduct in the initial proceedings.

I would hope we could agree that (a) and (b) are irrelevant.  We’ve endured a spate of celebrity crimes.  Celebrities don’t have a license to break the laws that the rest of us have to live with.  The law should be enforced even-handedly.  Of course, the law is generally more lenient on first-time offenders than on habitual criminals, so Polanski is entitled to the same break that any first-time offender who is generally a good person would get.  But no break for being a famous artist.

(c) could be relevant — we have taken to considering a defendant’s harsh upbringing  when passing sentences — but it doesn’t get him wholly off the hook.  At most it gets him a reduction.

(d) is not wholly irrelevant, but it’s mostly Polanski’s own fault.  The matter could have been resolved 32 years ago if he hadn’t fled the jurisdiction, and he could have come back to face the music any time. 

(e) is also not wholly irrelevant, but it’s not just the victim who needs protection; it’s also other 13-year-olds who need protection from other adults, including other adult celebrities. 

(f) is relevant but the judge who engaged in the irregular proceedings has died and another judge will now be making the decisions about Polanski’s fate (assuming he gets extradited).  So this issue is reduced.

I conclude that Polanski should face the music.  Again, if some 40-something accountant you hadn’t heard of seduced a 13-year-old girl with alcohol and drugs and then had sex with her, and then skipped the country, I don’t think we’d be arguing about whether it’s unfair to catch up with him later and throw him in jail.

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9 Responses

  1. dave hoffman says:

    I agree with everything you said except for the word “seduced.” As I read the grand jury testimony, he gave her champagne, and then a quaalude, and then over her over her objections sodomized her. That’s not a seduction, except maybe in his head. It’s simple forcible rape of a minor.

  2. Yeah, this wasn’t “seduction”, it was flat out, premeditated rape.

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    I’m not condoning what Polanski allegedly did, but the surprise or objections expressed in other countries are not necessarily based on Polanki’s social or artistic status. Here in Japan, for example, people find (e) to be especially important. Your interpretation of this factor is based on very American notions of deterrence and ‘making an example’, whereas in other cultures the notion of punishment is more focused on the specific malfeasor, his or her actions, and their impact on the victim.

  4. You don’t have to use “allegedly” once somebody has confessed. You can just say it right out: Polanski is a rapist.

  5. Alice says:

    Thank you for a terrific posting that clearly and succinctly captures the issues of this case, although I agree with other comments that “seduced” should be replaced with “rape.” While it is understandable that the victim would like for this to go away, Polanski should be held responsible for his crime. The things that have happened to him in his life are horrific, but these wrongs don’t make a right. It was – to say the least – viciously misguided and cowardly for him to turn his anger on a thirteen year old girl.

  6. And Steve Lopez largely agrees with you in today’s Times:
    “Polanski’s defenders lose sight of the true victim” Here: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-lopez30-2009sep30,0,1671827,full.column

  7. Jon Siegel says:

    Thanks to all for these comments. I agree that the word “seduced” was not well chosen.

  8. Ed says:

    It has been a very long time (30+) years since I saw a photo of that 13 yr old. If we are going to arrest folks, start with whoever dressed her up and put makeup on her to make her look like an adult babe. She was beautiful. Quit presenting children as beautiful sex objects, as was done with her.

  9. Ed,

    You implied that those who made her look beautiful are to blame; I disagree. The problem when adults have sex with minors is not that they should have found children unattractive, but that they should have found children emotionally unfit to consent to sex, especially to sex with a manipulative adult. Minors do not have fully developed frontal lobes; they are unable to properly assess risk and thus are unable to consent.

    That is why it is not morally or legally okay to rape a woman who was intoxicated or mentally handicapped for any reason, regardless of whether she was “darn hot” or wearing make-up or “clearly asking for it.” You can find a person attractive and yet recognize that if that person is unable to fully understand their actions, they are unfit to consent to sexual activity.

    Because the view is so prevalent in Western culture and many others, I understand why you would think that attractiveness is what should drive sexual decisions. But this is exactly the view that oppresses women into covering themselves up from the world; just because you look attractive doesn’t mean you consent to sexual advances. This view is the reason I often do not wear make-up and heels; men will make advances if one does. But that doesn’t make it right. I want to be able to wear make-up and heels for my own purposes without fearing that someone will sexually harass me.

    Until the view changes that sex appeal = consent, women will fear harassment. Please keep in your mind that consent can only come from affirmative, informed statements from a mentally and emotionally fit individual.