This week’s arrest of Roman Polanski felt weirdly unsurprising. It fit somehow with all the flashbacks to 1969 the media’s treated us to this year — as that TIME cover put it, “From the Moon to Charles Manson.” What will the 1970s reminiscences be like, one wondered? Maybe like this.

But who really remembers 1977? And what does anyone really remember about Polanski’s arrest?

I actually remember that time pretty vividly. I was 15 years old, and in some circles at my high school, relationships with older men were all the rage. They meant we were cool, outre, too daring for dating. (Not for me, mind you, though I still hoped to grow into it.) When the tabloids shrieked about Polanski’s statutory-rape conviction, I even blithely wrote an op-ed in my high school journalism class about how such “relationships” shouldn’t be illegal, even if the girl in question was 13 years old.

Of course, like most opinion writers then and now, I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. I certainly didn’t know that the girl had told a grand jury that she was given Quaaludes and then raped, that she’d said no and asked to go home, that Polanski pled guilty to a lesser charge and then fled before final sentencing.

My main excuse now for my blitheness then is that I was 15, and that it didn’t last long. I’ve never been able to see a Polanski film and cringed every time he won another award. Knowing the traumatic facts of his life, from the Holocaust to the Manson murders, plays differently with me: It can explain, perhaps, but it’s the opposite of an excuse.

This week I was floored at news reports which said over and over that Polanski had been arrested “for sex with an underage girl,” without explaining what had happened, and at the sudden movement to “Free Polanski,” giving the perp what Slate’s Elizabeth Wurtzel calls “a genius exception for rape.” Even Whoopi Goldberg  made my old mistake: “Things are different in Europe,” she said, and besides “It’s not rape-rape.”

I have no doubt that Goldberg has since been shown the grand jury testimony, but what’s her excuse for talking before she’d done the research? It’s on TheSmokingGun.com, for godsake.

Or she could have paid attention to Kate Harding on  Salon.com’s Broadsheet column. In Reminder: Roman Polanski raped a child,” Harding observes that:

Everyone makes a bigger deal of her age than her testimony that she did not consent, because if she’d been 18 and kept saying no while he kissed her, licked her, screwed her and sodomized her, this would almost certainly be a whole different story — most likely one about her past sexual experiences and drug and alcohol use, about her desire to be famous, about what she was wearing, about how easy it would be for Roman Polanski to get consensual sex, so hey, why would he need to rape anyone? It would quite possibly be a story about a wealthy and famous director who pled not guilty to sexual assault, was acquitted on “she wanted it” grounds, and continued to live and work happily in the U.S. Which is to say that 30 years on, it would not be a story at all. So it’s much safer to focus on the victim’s age, removing any legal question of consent, than to get tied up in that thorny “he said, she said” stuff about her begging Polanski to stop and being terrified of him.

Second, Polanski was “demonized by the press” because he raped a child, and was convicted because he pled guilty. He “feared heavy sentencing” because drugging and raping a child is generally frowned upon by the legal system. [Who] really wants us to pity him because of these things?

Harding’s piece, now justly famous, reflects an awareness of the change that’s evolved since those loosey-groovy 1970s. The years exemplified by Warren Beatty’s 1975 film Shampoo, when for some people protest was replaced by Primal Scream therapy, and when those who resisted sexual harassment were chided for being “uptight.” Harding, like many of us, knows that our culture is still confused about sex and young girls — but that fewer and fewer Americans are willing to give someone like Polanski a free pass.

That’s why Lisa Bloom, whose mom is iconic feminist lawyer Gloria Allred, describes the state of the case in such stark terms:

The latest: Polanski has hired lawyers who are close to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. They’ve appealed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to try to stop his extradition to the United States, saying that the 76-year-old man has “suffered enough.” It’ll be interesting to see what happens. Personally, I hope Clinton says no, if only to signal yet again that the smooth cruel guys no longer run the show around here.

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  • Chris Lombardi July 12, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    With today’s news that the Swiss are refusing to extradite Polanski, I wonder if I need to write a follow-up?

    Reply
  • Tania October 17, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    Penny do you want to blindly follow a law (the law also used to make legal to own one or more black slaves) or reason with our own mind in a rational way? A teen is not a child, period. This definition doesn’t depend on law but on mother nature. Age of majority is an human invention that have been changing from culture to culture without a clear reason. But puberty, sexual maturity and cognitive potential are facts. Read Robert Epstein studies and you will see that from a scientific point of view a 40 something adult is not intrinsically any better or any worse at making mature and responsible choices than a 14 year old.

    You’re doing exactly what this article is condemming, caring about the age rather than about the circumstance. As if in the case the girl was 23 the sex would have been less abusive, as if what makes sex abusive is not the abusive situation per se but the age of the woman (yes, because a teen is a woman a young woman at that but a full blown woman)

    This is also disrespectful of the maturity of teens and their right to make choices about their life and their body. The girl chose and the choice was a no. Not respecting that “no” is what abuse is all about and the whole situation wouldn’t been less abusive if instead of a girl Polanski had abused a woman of his own age.

    But what is the choice of the girl was a “yes”? Recently I read an article on scarleteen where the author write to have had sex at age 14 with a man of 30 and not regretting it, developing a strong friendship with this person and never suffering the popular-imagination negative consequences.
    I read an article by a sexologist that pointed out that the only way to teach a young person that one has a right to say “no” to the unwanted sex, it’s also teaching that one has a right to say “yes” to the sex one wants. This infantilization of young adults just play to the hands of abusers, rapers and all people who can exploit a situation in which we have robbed the ability to choose from a person.

    The more we focus on an irrelevant fact as as age (expecially when we consider the same person unable to choose about her body but perfectly able to choose about right and wrong and hence legally imputable for a crime… talk about double standard!) the less we are able to protect young woman who are physically women and naturally wired to have sexual desires and feelings.

    If we say to them that they have a right to choose about their body, that they are sexually mature and that when they’re being abused or molested they have a right like any other woman to denounce the fact and protect themselves then we might obtain sensible results against abuse and pro women rights. If we say to them that they’re children, that they should beware of strangers, that they should never think of sex and that they should not denounce molestations to the police like any other woman would do but just teel mommy and daddy (in other words if we have with them the same sort of dialogue about sex we would have with a 6 years old little girl) then they will never understand how becoming a woman, how having developed a woman body have changed their responsability over their own body and their sexual choices and they will never understand the risks they must protect themselves from.

    I have known girls who had been getting their periods for more than a year and still didn’t know anything about their body, about what does that mean, about how come the males in the classroom were more attracted to them and made more sexual comments about them (that’s nature folks, every human being has a “radar” for sexual maturity) and their parents still were treating them like small children, treating them in a childish way and talking to them in a childish way. I’m the only one who understand the danger of having a person developing a potential (and with that come responsabilities and duties) and still censoring the knowledge of that potential? To me that’s like, hypothetically, giving a person a remote control without telling him that remote control controls the detonation of a bomb, the knowledge of which would result in more care, more attention and better informed choices.

    Reply
  • AmyLeigh October 7, 2009 at 11:29 am

    I wanted to share an interesting documentary that shines a light on early Hollywood and the hidden culture of sexual abuse, specifically of underage girls. You can watch the film, Girl 27, for free on snagfilms.com, it definitely underscores the current issue with Polanski, but makes it all the more sad that we haven’t come farther and too many look the other way.
    http://www.snagfilms.com/films/title/girl_27/

    Reply
  • Penny Hastings October 5, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Adult sex with a child is against the law…period. Whether it was in the 70’s or now. Polanski has not be ‘punished enough.’ His history is very sad…true. His talent is great…true. He raped a 13-year-old child…true. He needs to be held responsibile…not only for child-rape but for fleeing the country to avoid his punishment. What are people thinking?

    Reply
  • Willful Woman October 1, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    You rock! Thank you for writing this!
    I hope Whoopi gets the whole story and retracts what she said. She’s usually a wise woman.
    I have been so disgusted with how this has been playing out in the media and in Hollywood. But I guess it’s no surprise that Hollywood is ready to sweep this child rape case under the rug. Sexualization of children is rampant on the big and small screen. And we all know how Hollywood values women, in general.

    Reply
  • Lombardi Chris October 1, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    Oriana – From what I can tell Nicholson has shrugged it off – and so did Angelica Huston, who walked in on the scene in the jacuzzi and walked out.

    Kate Harding today asked the some of the same questions you did on Jezebel.com. I keep waiting for some female A-lister to wake up and shake things up. Jodie Foster? Eliza Dushku? Hell, even Jane Fonda, who still must have the ear of her ex Ted Turner.

    Thanks a lot for caring about this.I know it’s not the most burning issue out there, but it’s disheartening to see so many behaving so badly.

    Reply
  • Oriana September 30, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    I was born in 1977. I had no idea any of this had happened because by time I was 13 years old it had, oddly and conveniently enough, dropped out of site and out of mind.
    (13= old enough to know about the possibility of adults abusing their power and to pray that something like that would never happen to me, but not old enough to consent to sex with a 40-something year old man, I believe, BTW)

    So all this time everyone else knew– they may not have remembered, but anyone “of age” in the 70’s knows/knew. Add to that the fact that now some of the coolest indie and even not-so-indie filmmakers are leading the charge to “free the rapist,” I mean, Polanski. Is my fragile young girl mind too female, too uncool, too unHollywood to understand? I don’t get it. I mean, I really don’t get it.

    …and, this happened at Jack Nicholson’s house? Where was Mr. Nicholson and what did/does he have to say about all of this?

    Does money really buy this kind of power? And why does the media refuse to talk about the power dynamics here?

    Reply
  • Billie Brown September 30, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Well said, friend, and I hope well-read!

    Reply