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E.J. Graff

Roman Polanski’s rape

By E.J. Graff
October 17, 2009

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WHAT DO you call it when a middle-age man takes a 13-year-old child to an isolated house’s jacuzzi to take “art photos’’; plies her with champagne and Quaaludes; maneuvers her into a bedroom; and - against her explicit, terrified objections - repeatedly forces himself into her?

If the man is Roman Polanski, it’s not called rape. It’s called “sex with a minor,’’ which downplays the crime.

A New York Times story this week compared Polanski’s rape with the consensual (if discomfiting) cross-generational affair in Woody Allen’s movie Manhattan.’’ The article suggested that Polanski’s arrest brings “some sharp reminders that, when it comes to adult sex with the under age, things have changed’’ - and that today’s outrage arises from less “permissive’’ mores.

But Polanski wasn’t charged with “having sex’’ with a barely pubescent child, bad though that would have been. He pleaded out to “unlawful sexual intercourse’’ (California’s term for statutory rape) after being charged with worse. Consider his victim’s heartbreaking grand jury testimony about her level of sobriety: “I can barely remember anything that happened . . . I was kind of dizzy, you know, like things were kind of blurry sometimes. I was having trouble with my coordination and stuff.’’ Or about Polanski fondling her: “I was ready to cry. I was kind of - I was going, ‘No. Come on. Stop it.’ But I was afraid.’’

The grand jury charged Polanski with “rape by use of drugs,’’ “lewd and lascivious acts upon child under 14,’’ “perversion,’’ and “sodomy’’ (the latter two for acts that are now legal if consensual, and are sexual assault if not.) After pleading guilty to the mildest charge, Polanski - now a convicted sex offender - fled before sentencing.

Society does take rape more seriously now than it once did, but it is not because of - as the The Times article suggested - “a family-values revival.’’ It is because of feminism.

Since 1977, women have insisted that rape is a real, criminal, bodily assault; that women’s bodies are their own, not men’s playthings; and that it is never acceptable to blame a victim for “tempting’’ a man into sexual assault. The phrase “no means no’’ is now familiar to generations of college students - as it clearly wasn’t to Polanski.

Polanski’s victim has been widely quoted as wishing the entire thing would be dropped. And why shouldn’t she? Every time it’s mentioned, she gets dragged through the mud again.

But what happens now is - to be blunt - none of her business. The difference between a criminal justice system and a vigilante or revenge system is that the state - not those involved - decides when, whether, and which punishment fits a crime. A violation of a person’s rights can be settled through a civil lawsuit. But a crime is a violation of our social fabric, of society’s agreements about right and wrong, truth and justice, good and bad.

In theory, a criminal justice system should prevent ongoing Hatfield-McCoy feuds, in which emotions decide when vengeance has been fully served.

And it should prevent the rich, powerful, and famous (whether aristocratic lords or Hollywood directors) from preying on the poor, weak, and anonymous. No individual victim can decide when or whether justice has been done.

In 1977, Polanski violated not just a 13-year-old, but also a society that believes children shouldn’t be drugged and treated as things.

By paying a civil settlement to his victim, Polanski may have made good with her, but he hasn’t made things right with the rest of us.

By reminding us that he lived through the Holocaust and his wife’s 1969 murder, Polanski’s apologists insult other survivors. Being a victim of genocide or violence needn’t engender and never excuses more violence.

Polanski’s “Chinatown’’ is one of the greatest movies of all time. The “Pianist’’ made me weep.

But I was just as wrenched by the testimony of Polanski’s rape victim.

Bring him home.

E.J. Graff is associate director and senior researcher at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.

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