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Mary Kay Letourneau and Hester Prynne

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Robert says we used to make laws regulating sex by looking to the public good, and Cheryl says she doesn’t know what marriage is anymore, and I’ve been thinking about John Stuart Mill.   That ought to cover enough ground, even without any confusion caused by this post’s title.

As to what marriage means, I’m in complete agreement with Cheryl, even though Canada seems to be far looser about accepting nonmarital relationships as marriages than the US is.   I’ll go with what I said yesterday.   For most people in the modern West, marriage is not a public act but a private one, the quintessentially private one, as private as sex itself.  It’s about “love” and “fulfillment” and “relationships” and a whole lot of other things that have to do with the emotions, which is why it makes sense that so many people also believe that divorce ought to be easy, especially where there are no children involved, but even if there are.  “The heart wants what it wants,” Woody Allen said, and even he knew he wasn’t talking about his heart.  

But here’s the thing.  If there is a defining narrative in the anglophone West, it is certainly the one about the brave individualist upholding his conscience–or his love, or his particular point of view–against the forces of society and conventionality, of the individual staying ‘true to himself” no matter what the cost.

And, of course, this narrative has an underlying theme, often unacknowledged in the past, but brought right to the forefront in the last few decades:  that society is wrong for judging or punishing the individual for what he is doing, that the rights of individual conscience supercede any interest society may have.

Now, as I’ve said before, nobody actually believes this, at least not if they think about it for a minute.  If they did believe it, they would be as strongly opposed to laws against rape and pedophilia as they are to laws against sodomy and abortion.   What they do instead is to place entire categories of human action outside the realm of acts of individual conscience, declare them “different” somehow (they’re unnatural, they cause harm), and then pretend that they’re not there.

What’s more, there’s virtually no indication that another point of view is possible.  There could be–the theme of the tension between individual conscience and society runs through all ages of Western literature and it by no means universally supports the rights of individual conscience–but not only don’t most of us read that literature, when we do read it, we often read it wrongly.

Let me give you two prime examples:  the death of  Socrates, and the story of  Hester Prynne.  I can tell you from experience that the story of the death of  Socrates is taught, or was some decades ago, as a picture postcard example of the evils of censorship and intellectual intolerance.  Generations of American and other university students have emerged from their introductory courses in Philosophy with the impression that not only did the  Athenians wrong Socrates, but that any society who would so interfere with individual thought would also commit a wrong.

Now,  I have a certain sympathy with this point of view, mostly because I hold it.  I think there are good reasons to uphold the rights of freedom of speech and of conscience as damned near absolute, if not absolutely so.  The very fact that the West has recognized these things is at the core of why the West, and no other culture, developed the first scientific civilization.   And a recognition of the rights of individual speech and conscience is necessary ever to develop one.

The problem is that the story of the death of Socrates as Plato presents it is not that story.   It is, in fact, the story of the limits of those rights, with the limits being defined as the good of the society in which they are exercised.   Not only is Socrates in a position to escape from execution with no great exertion, the implication is that the  Athenian authorites fully expect him to.   They don’t want to execute him.  They just want him to go away. 

Socrates, on the other hand, is adamant:  there is no individual anything, no good that can come to any individual man, without the framework and support provided by the state.   It is therefore the duty of every person to place his individual good as secondary to the good of his City.   Socrates dies because only by dying can he meet his obligations to Athens, and because he is convinced that those obligations must carry much more weight than any obligation he has to himself.

You get the same kind of misreading when schools teach The Scarlet Letter and “analyze” the character of Hester Prynne.  Robert remarked once that stories about adultery bored him, and that he’d been taught The Scarlet Letter as a story about destroying the repressiveness of Puritan sexual mores.

But The Scarlet Letter is not about adultery, and it does not favor destroying Puritan sexual repressiveness.   Yes, there is adultery in it, but that is an incidental and dramatic choise.   Making Hester’s sin sexual works on a number of dramatic levels that making that sin about stealing money, for isntance, would not.  

The issue in The Scarlet Letter is not adultery per se, but Hester’s insistance that she had the right to commit it, that her emotions and the emotions of the man she loves can and should supercede any rules society might impose for any reason, that society has no right to judge or punish her. 

The Scarlet Letter is quintessentially the story about the clash of “what is good for me” and “what is good for society,” and it is decisively resolved in favor of society.  At the end of that novel, Hester Prynne returns the scarlet letter to her breast and wears it for the rest of her life, indelible proof that she has come to accept that her own wishes and desires are secondary to what is good for her community.  And she accepts the good of that community as paramount in spite of the fact that individual members of it are often hypocritical pricks, or worse.  There is something bigger than ourselves.  We are obliged to acknowledge it.

I’m not contending here for placing “the good of society” above the good of the individual in any systematic or absolutist way–that that doesn’t work, we already have enough history to prove.  The real solution here is certainly some kind of balance.

But I do want to point out what happens when we move so far in one direction that we have no substantive counter to acts of individual will that are in fact deeply destructive to the social whole, even though the individual acts themselves are not destructive to any of the immediate parties to them.

That’s why Mary Kay Letourneau appears in the title to this post.  I don’t know how many of you remember the Letourneau case, but she was the sixth grade teacher who had a sexual affair with one of her twelve-year-old students, and then got pregnant by him. 

She was convicted of child rape and put on probation, a probation that included not being allowed to see her own children without supervision.  When she was caught with Vili (the boy) yet again, she was sent to prison.  When she was paroled she was caught with him again and found to be pregnant by him again.  The boy’s mother raised both the children until  Mary Kay got out of jail, at which point she and Vili waited just long enough for him to turn eighteen, and then got married.

They’re married still, last I checked.

All the way through this case, all the authorities involved in it make a set of assumptions, almost none of which was true, at least in this particular case.

First, they assumed that a rape had occured, not just in the sense of statutory rape, but in the sense of coercion.  The rationale was the “power differential” between Mary Kay and Villi, both because of the differences in their ages and the fact that she was his teacher at the very beginning of their relationship.  In the particular case of Villi,  however, this seems not to have been the case.  Villi has always contended that he was not harmed in any way by his relationship with  Mary Kay, that he loved her, that she had helped him and not hurt him throughout.

The second thing the authorities assumed was that Mary Kay must be a “pedophile” who was driven uncontrollably to sexually assault children, and that given half the chance she would rape any child who was handy.  But there’s no indication that any of this is true, either.  Mary Kay Letourneau has never been accused of having sexual relations of any kind with any other child or adolescent, and Villi was, in fact, an adolescent and not a child when Mary Kay did have sexual relations with him. 

There certainly are people who are sexual predators driven to have sex with children or adolescents, and who will do so if ever given the opportunity.  And there certainly are people who use positions of power or large differences in age to coerce physical compliance out of children and adolescents who want no part of it.

But I think it’s reasonable to assume that there are relationships, like that between Mary Kay and  Villi, that do not fit these criteria, that Mary Kay and Villi were and are an exception.

And that leads us to our problem–as long as we assume that any sex that doesn’t “harm” anybody is okay, that sexuality is the core of our identity and therefore not to be denied, that the good of the individual should supercede the good of society at all times–

As long as we assume all these things, we have no basis on which to condemn Mary Kay  Leatourneau’s actions with Villi at the start of that relationship.   It doesn’t matter what most cases are.  This case was what it was, and given the two premises above, we’ve got two choices:  lie about it so that we can condemn it, or not condemen it at all.

Personally, I think we should not condemn it, and not lie about it.  The simple fact is that no matter how much of an exception this case is, it is an exception.  The vast majority of cases are just what the au thorities think they are, both coercive and harmful to the children or adolescents caught up in them. 

Allowing the exception would do more than just let Mary Kay and Villi be happy.   It would make policing all the other cases that come down the road more and more difficult, and often functionally impossible.   It would give real sexual predators a green light and an escape hatch.  It will tend to normalize something that we cannot safely normalize. 

But to make an argument about that, you see, we must first accept that our personal happiness is not the standard by which social rules are to be judged.

Written by janeh

December 21st, 2008 at 11:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Mary Kay Letourneau and Hester Prynne'

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  1. I remember the Letourneau case. It was fascinating not just because the relationship lasted, or because the age difference was so large or because the older partner was a woman with another family and other children, or because of the cultural/racial diffence.

    The lovers were self-destructively blatant about their relationship. There was no sense that they even considered lying low for a while, or even using birth control! There was no recognition of social or legal rules that needed to be obeyed or at least recognized well enough to work around.

    Of course, when True Love is in question, secrecy is the worst kind of hypocrisy!

    One thing that bothered me in this case, and in others I’ve read about, was that there was little if any consideration for the earlier family – including the young children. The parent’s (in this case, the mother’s) passionate obsessive love for a new partner trumps all. Maybe ‘obsessive’ fits another case I’m thinking about better than this one, but surely there’s something obsessive about a relationship that is pursued even when prison is certain unless they wait until the younger partner is of age or has parental consent? I think this is what Jane is referring to as the drive to be true to oneself at all costs.

    Sacrifice for the greater good is treated now as almost a psychological failure to life a fulfilled life. After all, if you’re sacrificing your desire for a new lover to stay with the old one and raise your children, you aren’t yourself being as happy and fulfilled as you could have been.

    I think humans tend to the pendulum effect. We don’t naturally go for a balance between competing claims. Certainly, when various social institutions emphasized the importance of (sticking to sex and the family) sacrifice and duty; and wrote laws accordingly which made divorce very difficult and ensured that at least some of the vulnerable – wives and children – could not easily be refused financial support, some people suffered. Some people were sacrificed by society to brutal marriages, or left uprotected when deserted, or hadn’t followed the rules and therefore their children had only the generosity of their biological parents or charity, not of society as a whole to fall back on. But our attempt to deal with such inequities hasn’t stopped in the middle, with sacrifice and duty balanced with release from social rules when they become truly impossible or cruel. We always go to the other extreme, where some of us argue that keeping a commitment or carrying out a duty is determined by whether we feel like it – whether we love the other person; whether we think we can handle the struggle to do what we promised. It’s easy to uphold the importance of committments to spouse or child when it’s not you being overcome by a passionate love for a teenager.

    I’ve always thought that emotions are very feeble things to build on. They’re very strong in the short term, but wax and wane and even vanish in a most unpredictable manner.

    Back to Ms. Letourneau – it hasn’t been that long since the same sort of thing sometimes happened in local schools. Usually in reverse, of course, with a male teachers. Some of those relationships ended in marriage. I think the usual procedure was to keep it very, very quiet until the girl graduated, at which point the engagement was announced. Hypocrisy, people would say today, but it had the desired effect – the couple did eventually get together, but it didn’t require public approval of behaviour which is often mere sexual exploitation. Rigid societies often have work-arounds for the rules.


    21 Dec 08 at 3:49 pm

  2. I just want to comment on John Stuart Mill. If I remember correctly, he favored a form of utilitarianism based on maximizingt happyiness in the society, Bote that means the general level of happiness in society as a whole, and not individual happiness.

    The stabdard philosophicak objection to that idea is a claim that it doesn’t allow for rights.

    The right of free speech means someone can make a speech even if it makes everyone else in the society unhappy.


    21 Dec 08 at 11:29 pm

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