I am not sure what Plato would have made of the “platonic rape” concept introduced by guest blogger Cyril Belgrad today, but it is undoubtedly one that makes a disturbingly valid topic for thought and discussion in the sexually angst-ridden culture of our times. Belgrad is a professional with a distinguished reputation in his field.
I’ve been lucky to have several long-term young friends in my life. The first, Jody, is now in his late twenties and calls me on the phone about once a week. Steve, who is earlier in his twenties, has thanked me for giving him the encouragement to pursue his career when no one else believed in him. He gives me an update every year on his birthday. Now with my third, Carl, I am thrilled to see him almost every day, either to help with his schoolwork or for fun stuff like riding bicycles.
Looking through my diary recently, I was intrigued by the following entry, written shortly after I met Jody:
Another really important thing is that I’m scared of the way I write about this relationship as a love affair. Not just for my own safety in the face of the potential mounting temptation, but also questioning whether it is fair to Jody. I would guess that he has no idea of the way that I love him. He likely does not know about erections I have had around him. He can’t have any idea that I feel romantically for him, that last night when he suggested I could go out with the single lady next door to me, my thought was “I only want to go out with you.” And I suppose that given his indoctrination in our culture, he would be angry and disgusted if he did know these things. I suppose I am using him, without his knowledge and perhaps against his will, as an object of affection. What a strange thought! Is it wrong to use someone as an object of affection? To come into their life as a friend and mentor and bearer of gifts for reasons that they don’t know about, wouldn’t understand, and might disapprove of? Is this some kind of platonic rape?
Platonic rape? As strange as that concept might sound, I find myself asking the same question today. I often get overt or subtle messages from the boys in my life about how revolting sex with another guy would be. Of course, they have no idea what they’re talking about and are only reciting the requisite mantra of our culture. But still, it makes me queasy about my feelings.
When I shared that diary entry with Tom, he was also intrigued and asked if I would write a guest post for Heretic TOC about the idea.
I start with an example of a message from a boy, expressing how he feels about my feelings.
A message of disgust
A couple of boys in the neighborhood have taken to enjoying me pulling them on my bicycle while they’re riding their skateboards. I enjoy this for the fun and exercise, but mostly just for the opportunity to be in their presence. Sometimes they hold on to the rack on the back of my bike, but I enjoy it even more when they hold on to my shoulder because then they’re touching me. Another variation I’ve introduced is pushing them with my hand on their backs. I like that too.
The other day, we were out doing this, and one of the boys, Pete, was riding alongside me with his hand on my shoulder while I leisurely pumped the pedals of my bike. He asked if it hurt my shoulder and if it was okay for him to hold on that way. I said, “Yeah, I like it.” He let out a loud, ”Eww!”, let go of my shoulder, switched to holding the rack behind me, and said something about that being creepy. I said, “What are you talking about? I like it because it’s fun,” leaving out, of course the full truth about why I liked it, which was exactly the thing he was creeped out about. He said something that seemed to mean he was freaked out that I was having fun. I wondered what in the world that was about, wondering if he thought I was riding with them out of some sort of obligation to entertain them or something. I said, “Why do you think I’m doing this? I’m doing it because it’s fun.” He said something I don’t remember, and I said something like, “That’s fine. You can hold on wherever you want,” trying to pretend that I didn’t care that he was holding the rack instead of my shoulder.
My mind, of course, was racing. I asked myself, had I said “I like it” in a way that implied anything sensual? I really don’t think so. He’s the one who read sensuality into my enjoying him holding on to my shoulder. However, his reading of that was correct. So where did his sudden awareness of that come from? Is my friendship with him going to be strained from now on by this? Will he tell the other boys what a pervert I am because I like them holding on to my shoulder? Will they freak out about it too? Will one of them tell his parents?
Pete rode behind me for a couple of blocks, and then when we were almost where we were going, he stood up again and put his hand back on my shoulder. I’m guessing that it’s more comfortable to ride standing up than crouched down, holding on to the rack. I don’t know if he was holding his nose for that last, short distance, or if he’d gotten over his disgust and things were back the way they were before. The one thing that’s for sure is that we can never sit down and talk with any kind of honest communication of feelings. So I’ll never know what’s really going on in these boys’ heads.
So when I surreptitiously enjoy the touch of their hands on my shoulder while I pull them on their skateboards, that’s an example of the platonic rape I wrote about happening with Jody 16 years ago. And in the incident with Pete, I got busted for it. Not busted with any legal consequences, but busted by a boy catching a glimpse of my true feelings and delivering the punishment of disgust plus removal of his touch. Fortunately, the punishment was short-lived, and a couple of days later he and other boys were back to riding my shoulder like I’d never said anything about enjoying it.
The problem, of course, was that I was enjoying being touched by the boy.
Defining platonic rape
Wikipedia offers a definition of platonic love as “an affectionate relationship into which the sexual element does not enter, especially in cases where one might easily assume otherwise.” I am using the term platonic rape to mean:
A nonsexual interaction that occurs in the context of a sexual attraction and is engaged in without disclosure and approval of the attraction.
This occurs when one carries on a relationship that is assumed to be platonic but (a) is not platonic because there is a sexual attraction, and (b) the object of the attraction would not want the relationship if the attraction were disclosed.
Am I the only person who concerns myself with such things? Absolutely not.
In 2007, a man named Jack McClellan ran a website in which he professed his love for little girls, wrote about places he liked to go to watch them, and posted pictures he took in those places. He started this in the US state of Washington, and when he was run out of there by police and vigilantes, he resumed his hobby in California, from which it wasn’t long before he was banished as well. Although he sometimes wrote about wanting to hug and kiss girls, I don’t think the parents who had a fit about him watching their daughters play baseball were really afraid he would ever do that. What I think severely freaked them out was the thought of a man looking lustfully at their innocent princesses. As most pedophiles who have ever “come out” to family or friends know, the problem people have with pedophiles does not begin when one touches a child. People tend to get crazy just knowing that someone has a sexual attraction to kids. It’s as if, when a man looks at a child with desire, he is raping her or him with his eyes. This idea is supported by the Bible when it says, “everyone who gazes at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Platonic rape.
As far as I know, there is no law (yet) against gazing at a child with sexual desire. Local police said as much in a poster warning parents about the “notorious pedophile advocate”. It said, “McClellan … is not wanted at this time in connection with any crime. If you see McClellan, please closely monitor your children.”
Now, what if McClellan had managed to strike up a conversation with a girl, and then patted her on the head and stroked her hair? Would that be a crime? In California, yes. California Penal Code, §288(a) states, “a person who willfully and lewdly commits any lewd or lascivious act … upon or with the body, or any part or member thereof, of a child who is under the age of 14 years, with the intent of arousing, appealing to, or gratifying the lust, passions, or sexual desires of that person or the child, is guilty of a felony …” If you wonder if just stroking a girl’s hair can be a lewd act, the California Supreme Court answered yes, if it is sexually motivated: “… the crime occurs whenever … an underage child was “touched” with the requisite sexual intent. … Nothing in this language restricts the manner in which such contact can occur or requires that specific or intimate body parts be touched.”
Nothing about McClellan was platonic because he was up-front about his attraction. The point I’ve been making in the last three paragraphs is that people and some laws don’t limit their condemnation to someone actually doing something sexual with a child. The problem begins with having “lust, passions, or sexual desires” for a child. The pretense of having a relationship where such desires are present but undisclosed, and would be disapproved by the object of the desires if disclosed, that is what I’m calling platonic rape.
Note that I’m defining the concept to require that the attraction would be disapproved if disclosed, not if known. I think that at some level, not very deeply subconscious, my current young friend, Carl, knows or strongly suspects what’s up with me. I think that my interest in him is an ego boost for him, and I think that knowing I find him sexy is exciting for him, even if he would not want to consummate that excitement with me. He has even told some of his friends that I’m a pedophile, and I think what is of utmost importance to him is that they can all treat that as a very funny joke, even if he and they all believe it. I feel pretty sure that he would run the other way if I sat down with him and said, “You know, that thing you’ve been telling your friends, that I’m a pedophile, well, it’s actually true and I’d be really happy if you would be into me doing certain things with you.” I’m not at all sure that he wouldn’t enjoy me actually doing those things. But what would bring our friendship to a crashing end would be him gaining conscious awareness of my interest in doing them. Pretense is the golden rule.
Is platonic rape a problem?
If pretense is all that matters, and if platonic rape is a relationship founded on pretense, then what’s the problem? Maybe there is none, as long as the pretense is maintained. But the pretense itself is a heavy burden.
I remember seeing the movie Shrek when it first came out twenty years ago. Writing this today, I didn’t remember anything about the story until reading the synopsis in Wikipedia. All I remembered was that it was about a beautiful girl falling in love with an ugly creature. I remember sitting in the theater, identifying with that creature, wondering if anyone could ever love a pedophile. To this day, I still have insecure, painful moments when I wonder the same thing. In the movie, Shrek used a helmet to hide his ugliness. My helmet is the pretense that I am just a nice man with innocent affection for children.
When I told Pete that I liked having his hand on my shoulder, it was as if I’d cracked open the visor of my helmet, giving him a glimpse of the monster inside. His reaction reminded me of the importance of keeping the helmet clamped tightly shut. That hurts.
On the whole, my life is pretty wonderful right now. The burden of my pretense-helmet, while painful, is bearable. So if I can keep that up, is there any problem with platonic rape? I am concerned that there might be.
Jody, my first long-term young friend, had a friend, Eric. There were some moments when I felt a reciprocal intimacy with Eric. One example was when he got a bug stuck in his eye on a mountain hike. I gently held his head in my hands and used the corner of a tissue to extract the bug. When he could blink again without pain, I could have concluded my nursing with a gentle kiss on his lips, and I had the feeling he would enjoy that. (Of course, that feeling is what psychologists call a cognitive distortion or offense-supportive belief.) Eric grew into a wayward vagabond and got into some mildly serious trouble. Certainly, his alcoholic father played a major role in that outcome, but I’ve sometimes wondered if my affection stirred feelings in him that he didn’t know how to deal with and that we could never talk about. I also wondered if I could have played a more positive role in his life had we been able to explore a mutual interest in intimate affection. I once described this concern to a psychologist I knew, and it was painfully comical watching him try to comprehend my fear that I had harmed the boy by loving him without having sex with him!
That is my fear. Am I giving rise to feelings in these boys that they don’t know how to handle and have no chance of ever getting any guidance in handling, no chance to ever even just talk about with anybody? If they would run away from me if I professed my love for them, who could they run away from if they ever allowed themselves to recognize in themselves even just a curiosity about what in the world I would do with them if I could? Am I a potential source of deeply conflicting feelings in some boys that might have contributed to ruining Eric’s life and might ruin more? Would these boys, for this reason, be better off without me in their lives?
When actual sexual activity occurs between an adult and a child, that is often called child rape, no matter how the child felt about it. If the adult is prosecuted for it and the child had enjoyed or even instigated it, then the victims are both the child and the adult, and the perpetrator of harm is the societal condemnation of the affection between them. Even though the adult did not cause the harm with the sexual activity, he could have prevented the harm by not allowing the activity to occur. That’s how I’m thinking about my platonic rape of these boys. If some of them are being harmed by conflicting feelings that come up in them from being around me, those feelings are not my fault, but I could prevent them from coming up by not being around the boys.
The incident with Pete was a trivially minor case of platonic rape. I mentioned it because of the stark clarity of Pete’s message of disgust about my feelings. But it was a single incident that lasted maybe 15 minutes with a boy that I don’t see that often. Multiply that by all the time I spend with Carl, in which he has many more opportunities to get similar glimpses of my feelings. I can only wonder about the effect this is having on him. Is he just basking in the glory of my infatuation, or is he silently tormented by painful confusion about feelings he will not let himself contemplate? I can never ask him, nor his parents, nor his school counsellor. Carl and I must stumble through this dark cave together, not allowed to tell each other whether the ground under our feet feels like feathers or shards of glass. If I would exit, the cave would disappear. Would he be better off without me and this mysterious cave?
I cannot know. There are some signs of Carl moving in a similar direction that Eric went. As with Eric, there are influences in Carl’s life that I have no control of that may be pushing him in that direction. But am I a source of confusion that could help nudge him there? If Carl gets into drugs or robs a store, I will forever ask myself if the deep, dark, but thinly veiled secret of my love for him helped to push him over the edge. Of course, I’m doing everything I can to push him in the opposite direction by modeling a healthy work ethic and encouraging him to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment from a job well done. Ultimately, the choice of what direction his life takes is his. But I sure don’t want to be an influence that contributes to him making the wrong choice.
My life is not consumed with fretting over this. By and large, Carl and his friends and I just enjoy our time together. Writing a blog post for Tom about the idea of platonic rape has led to this long and fretful contemplation. I have no intention of removing myself from Carl’s life. While the reason for that is mostly my own selfish joy from being around him, I also think he’s lucky to have me, both for the fun we have together and for the positive role model I am. His parents seem to agree.
So what’s the bottom line here? I submit that the phenomenon of platonic rape is real, that its existence is a tragedy, that while it’s a burden on the life of a pedophile, it also has the potential to cause real harm to a young friend, as I fear it might have to Eric, and that it is caused by our society’s severe and stupid condemnation of children participating in any sexual activity and the accompanying morbid fear of people who find kids to be sexy.
Platonic rape. Life of the modern human.