Looking at concerns that Kevin Spacey has deliberately or otherwise equated child abuse with his same-sex sexuality one can only wonder at his intent. But was he really reviving the spectre of this equation or was he just joining the dots in the information he released – setting his actions toward Anthony Rapp into some kind of contextual logic. His drunken behaviour toward a teenage boy confer an implication of homosexuality that Spacey has dodged, or flirted with, for some time in respect of his public persona. So in apologising for his actions what was he supposed to say?
Of course ‘coming-out’ in this way may have been an attempt at a diversion tactic too, but that was never going to work. If that was Spacey’s intent it was misjudged. Yet even if employing such a strategy, in revealing himself to be now ‘living as a gay man,’ Spacey would surely have been trying to divert a focus from his abusive actions rather than seeking to conflate them with his sexuality – as one and the same. Redirection rather than causal linking would have been the intent. But of course what has happened is that Spacey, or his advisors, have stoked the conservative lie that queers are child-abusing perverts. It is an awful thing to have done, even if he was backed into a corner.
And yet, cornered Spacey was. Not to say that he didn’t deserve it, as he in turn seems to have cornered others. But nonetheless in admitting culpability in his actions toward Rapp, Spacey really had to nail his colours to the mast. Playful acts of dipping in and out of the closet as a performance piece when presenting the Tony Awards, for example, look pretty callow in the circumstances. So it was indeed time for him to make a statement. Against this background the insistence from some commentators that Spacey is iterating the connection between paedophilia and homosexuality seems, at least in part, to spring from somewhere else. Not that this is a narrative that comes from nowhere of course, but the set of concerns seems somewhat different. An equation between paedophilia and homosexuality that others are making is not a lie that Spacey is necessarily perpetuating, even if he has clumsily fed into it. It speaks to enduring sexual panic and vulnerability in LGBTQI communities. This point has been noted also with an US expert on sex panics and child sexuality, Lisa Duggan.
And anyway what to do with all this? Of course what Spacey did was something that one can have no sympathy with. As other claims circulate we will have to wait and see what the pattern of his actions may have been. Indications are that a disturbing history of more incidents is being uncovered. And even if Spacey didn’t explicitly use his position to effect direct consequences for Rapp, status and power are intrinsic to his abusive actions, as in any such circumstances.
But how do we go about unpacking all of this in all of our lives – not just in these public cases? For all of us who have grown up against the norms of the hetero-cis-white-patriarchy, abuse is the norm. I do not know how to discharge the narrative of my life without that being the story, my own and that of those around me – from youth to the present day. Abuse is suffuse with who and what we are and in my experience doesn’t bifurcate along any neat hetero/homo binaries. It might not always be about violent sexual acts and rape, although it might be. It is also about the many micro aggressions and predations we face too – especially, but not only, as one may encounter these as a young queer person coming to an understanding of ones sexual world. There is no clear blue water between these domains – which is not the same thing as equating homosexuality with paedophilia.
Amidst such circumstances how do we join the dots to the perpetrators who do not necessarily know that that is what they were/are; or who like Spacey ‘don’t remember’? How do we turn such actions inside out, outside of the simple linearity of the norms of the present being made to excavate the violations of the past? There are many casually violent homophobes whom I would like to track down from my personal history; and sexual abusers. But what to do? I’m pretty sure that they don’t remember. Or even if they do, times have changed and it may no longer matter – as if it ever mattered much to them in the first place. That was the norm then (as it still is in many places). A lot of us have swept the stories of our abuse and aggression under the carpet as we stake claims in a progressive future. We have forgiven the unforgivable. We have bound the damage into us. This may be so even as the effects of abuse and homophobia endure in many of our circumstances.
And if looking back to effect retributions for past aggressions the trail might never end anyway – unfolding unpredictably back and forth over place and time. I spent the weekend visiting an exhibition by the Finnish artist, illustrator and author Tove Jansson. I was reminded of her short story ‘The Listener’. Concerned that she is losing her memory the elderly protagonist seeks to draw a map of her past – to keep a definite record. But as she does so the lines move about and fade – doubt creeps in as what has gone before becomes blurred and vague. The cumulative weight of the past emerges as nebulous.
In employing Jansson’s story of indistinct memory as a metaphor for the recollection of abuse narratives I do not at all venture to suggest that such accusations are fictive. Rather I seek to acknowledge why sexual abuse and homophobic aggression fucks us up so much. It pushes against so many vulnerabilities and transgresses so many boundaries – being bound up with how we come to understand sexual feelings and desire along with disgust and fear – things that we might want to forget. It may also involve acknowledging that people whom we have confided in may have been none too great in the recognition of such violations. And it may involve querying ourselves amidst dark memories and the on-going fractures of abusive relationships and normative family structures. All such circumstances inculcate self-doubt and insecurity. And this too is part of the dynamic of abuse amidst the multifaceted dynamics of many queer lives around the world, where criminalization of homosexuality endures and where sexual violence is the norm for many – in the past and in the present.
This is why ‘coming-out’ as having been a victim of sexual abuse and/or homophobic aggression is most viable as a connected, collective, political act. Such acts allow communal recognition. The stories that we kept in can be vocalised and finally heard; the vague lines of the past can come into alignment. The interior effects of violence can find potent equivalency with the outside world. Yet we have to acknowledge that this kind of hearing is not available to many – even as currently some Western celebrity cases (such as Spacey’s) are coming into the full glare of the media. And so we must fight for equality; lay blame at the doors of perverts, sexists, racists and homophobes. Publicly shame them as we also act for social justice, in full knowledge of the sexual violations to minors and others legitimated by law and prejudice around the world.
And this too in respect of admitting circumstances where forms of same-sex sexual expression might become brutalised, violent or coercive – in the absence of more constructive life-ways and positive role models for same-sex desiring peoples in many global contexts. This is not to simply equate abusers as being victims too. But it is to remind ourselves that cultures of homophobic prejudice are likely to bring about queerly desiring persons – perhaps mostly men – whose expressions of such sexualities are enacted to harmful effect, as too anyway – most often male – heterosexualities can be equally coercively damaging amidst patriarchal norms and heteronormative privilege.
The suffuse effects of abuse are with us in many complex ways. That is what (non-normative) lives are like; intimate connections between queer desires and acting abusively are not a lie but a truth for many. Not uniquely so, and not out of any special equivalency between homosexuality and desire toward the under-aged, but so nonetheless. But this too is where new powerful acts of resistance might stem from for queer communities in the present moment. In looking squarely at these circumstances and their effects, and thinking about what to do.
Dr. Paul Boyce is Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and International Development, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.
Paul is a close collaborator with the CoreKin Project, and will give a public talk on his work on Sexual Worldings at the University of Helsinki on 23 January 2-4pm. Follow this space for more info!