Fun With Family: Roman Polanski Ruined My Thanksgiving

Well, sort of. The director was at the center of an argument between my brother and I that started almost as soon as we sat down for Thanksgiving dinner.

[For reference: Polanski was apprehended by Swiss authorities, after he fled the United States in 1977 before he could be sentenced for having “unlawful sex with a minor,” a lesser charge than the original six, which Polanski pled guilty to. (He was originally charged with “rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14, and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor.”) Polanski fled the country before sentencing upon learning that the judge was planning on giving him jail time, despite the recommendations of a probation report and psychiatric evaluation, which both indicated that Polanski should be released on time served. For the record, Polanski served only 42 days out of the initial 90 before being released and making a break for his native France.]

I just assumed my brother shared my opinion that Polanski should be locked in jail and the key thrown away. When he didn’t — and said that Polanski should be released because he wasn’t a serial predator, that the judge in the case was on a witch hunt, and that the 13-year-old girl whom Polanski had sex with had “consented” and “maybe even took the drugs on her own” — I basically lost my shizz. Was my own flesh and blood not only being a rape apologist but victim-blaming as well?We’ve written a lot about the Polanski case on this site and, for the most part, I’ve written off Polanski’s sympathizers as idiots and a**holes. They’re made up of A) celebrities and academics who somehow think the famed director’s talent should buy him leniency and that he’s too old to go to jail now, so many years later, and B) folks who think there’s a difference between “rape” and “rape-rape,” and that what Polanski did wasn’t so bad and he’s been punished enough. Finding out my brother was among Polanski’s sympathizers shook me to my core.

In many ways, we live in a rape culture. Chances are, if you’re a woman you likely feel unsafe, say, walking home alone at night on an unlit street. One in four women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. As my argument with my brother exploded, I let it slip that someone once had sex with me without my consent — not to garner sympathy, mind you, but to illustrate my point that it’s very hard for most women to separate their own personal experience when discussing an issue like rape. He still didn’t understand why I couldn’t separate my experience from the actual specifics of the Polanski case (the specifics, by the way, we also disagree on) and look at the issue objectively.

Maybe I could have done that, if my brother hadn’t tried to argue that the 13-year-old victim was in any way responsible. That was the part that made my blood boil. If he could believe a 13-year-old could give consent and that “teasing” and “flirting” with a 40-year-old man could give him the right to have sex with her, how many other men were making those same excuses for that behavior — including their own? I never thought the subject of Polanski would illuminate that my brother — whom I consider to be outrageously intelligent and kind, someone who I know would never hurt a woman — was incredibly ill-informed and emotionally stupid about the subject of rape and its consequences. I was furious at him, but after thinking about it a lot over the holiday weekend, I don’t think it’s his fault.

The women’s movement has done a lot to educate women about subjects like rape and domestic violence — we know the statistics, we know how to protect ourselves (as best we can), etc. — and awareness is certainly one of the keys to ending violence against women. But beyond “no means no,” how else are men taught that rape — no matter how it occurs and by whom — is wrong? Rape culture does more than make women fear for their safety — it sends men and women mixed messages about what rape even is.

Take, for example, the movie “Observe & Report,” in which Seth Rogen has sex with a drunk, drugged, and comatose Anna Faris. The film’s stars and director joked about this being a “rape scene, “but then excused it because mid-thrust, Faris wakes up and slurs, “Why are you stopping, motherf**ker?” In real life, this is date rape, because Faris was not in the physical or psychological position to give consent. On screen, it’s supposed to be comedy. When there are tons of mixed messages coming at us via pop culture about what rape even is and the only concrete message is something as innocuous as “no means no,” is it any wonder that men — even kind and considerate ones like my brother — could find ways to make excuses for it?

But beyond drilling the legal definition of “rape” into the male (and female) brain, shouldn’t we also be teaching men about the aftermath of rape and sexual assault? The toll it can take emotionally, physically, and psychologically? Many times rape survivors show no visible scars, but the effects are still there and can be extremely long-lasting. Hell, it’s been years since my virginity was taken from me without my consent and while I’ve never really thought of myself as being extremely “scarred” because of it, the experience was front and center in my brain when I was arguing with my brother. He didn’t understand why I couldn’t look at the Polanski case objectively and withdraw my own personal experience, but considering Polanski’s fate is not in my hands (the judicial system would make sure that it wouldn’t be — I would never be selected for a jury in a rape case, and rightfully so), why should I? And, for that matter, shouldn’t all human beings — men and women — see rape as a deeply personal issue (not necessarily to them, but in general)? Wouldn’t doing so potentially do more to end sexual violence than even the deafening cry of “no means no”?