Imagine, if you will, this hypothetical scenario: Jerry Sandusky, following his conviction this week on 45 separate counts related to child molestation, somehow manages to slip out of custody, and flee Pennsylvania and eventually the country. Sandusky surfaces in Canada, due to some legal loophole avoids extradition back to the U.S. and completely escapes any punishment for his crimes.
Living in his adopted home, Sandusky resumes his career as a football coach, getting a job with the Canadian Football League. As the years pass, he enjoys some success and his reputation as a coach is reestablished, to the point where top-notch American football players regularly come north to play for his team. Eventually, he’s even given an extremely prestigious award by the football community, many of whom bemoan that he’s legally forbidden from accepting the award in person.
ESPN makes a “30 for 30″ documentary about his legal case, leaning toward the conclusion that an overzealous prosecutor gave Sandusky a raw deal. And soon after that, an attempt to extradite the coach to the U.S. is met with fierce opposition by football luminaries, more than 100 of whom sign a petition demanding he immediately be freed, because arresting a man of such stature is an outrage.
Could that scenario ever happen? Not in a million years. No one would stand for it and no one should. The outrage would make the reaction to the O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony verdicts look like nothing.
But for some reason we have stood for something remarkably similar, for more than three decades, in regards to Roman Polanski. The filmmaker, who fled the country after pleading guilty to drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl in 1977, is every bit the child rapist that Jerry Sandusky is. That he’s treated so differently is a double standard that’s deeply troubling and unfair.
If you’re unfamiliar with the facts of the Polanski case, this Salon piece is a great place to start (warning, it’s pretty graphic). The filmmaker, believing a judge was going to double-cross him following his guilty plea, fled the U.S. for Europe, never spent a single day in prison, and has directed over a dozen films in exile, with major stars like Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet regularly traveling to work with him.
Sure, there are some surface differences between the Sandusky and Polanski cases. The sexual attitudes of the ’70s were very different from those today, the football world has not a lot in common with the movie world, and Sandusky was convicted of abusing many children and Polanski only one. (There were reports of others, but he was only charged with one count.)
On the other hand, there’s no evidence that Sandusky ever drugged anyone, nor did he ever become a fugitive from justice.
But there’s one even bigger difference, which I feel is the biggest reason for the disparate attitudes: Sandusky abused boys, while Polanski’s victim was a girl. The way our culture treats child abuse, this shouldn’t matter, but when it comes to people’s attitudes, there’s a night-and-day difference. It’s a deeply insulting and homophobic double standard, one propagated regularly by the supposedly liberal and gay-friendly Hollywood.
Men who abuse underage women are looked at either as horny Europeans trying to get laid with a girl who probably looked older (in Polanski’s case), or as pathetic losers who are treated as punchlines (like males caught on To Catch a Predator). Men who rape boys, on the other hand, are seen as sadistic monsters. If R. Kelly had been caught on a widely circulated sex tape with an underage boy rather than a girl, would he have resumed his career as an R&B love man? Of course not.
The implication is that rape of young boys is unspeakably monstrous, but the same crime victimizing girls somehow less so. I don’t think that’s true, and I believe the claim that it is must be challenged at every opportunity. There’s no reason for Roman Polanski not to be just as much of a pariah as Jerry Sandusky.
There are people I know—people I respect—who argue openly that because Polanski is a giant of cinema, we should just let that whole child rape thing go. It’s sometimes coupled with consideration with Polanski’s tragic personal history, which includes both survival of the Holocaust as a child and the murder of his wife by the Manson Family. Unspeakable horrors, of course—but does having suffered entitle a man to one free rape?
I’m a movie guy and I have great appreciation for Polanski’s work. Chinatown belongs on any short list of the greatest films of the 20th century, and some of his more recent work—The Pianist and The Ghost Writer especially—are fine movies.
But you know what? Jerry Sandusky came up with a defensive game plan that shut down the still-legendary Miami Hurricanes and won the national championship in 1986. If there’s a college football coaching equivalent to directing Chinatown, it’s that. But if anyone claimed Sandusky’s coaching career warranted exoneration for his crimes—or that one of the boys he abused “looked older”—they’d be justifiably laughed out of the room, and probably punched in the face for good measure.
Jerry Sandusky will never be allowed to escape to Canada, coach a football team, work with star players or even breathe free air again. With his conviction, as that of Monsignor Lynn on the same day, it’s heartening to see that child abusers and those who protect them are finally paying the price. I just wish we could stop giving one certain abuser a continuing pass.