How fictional pedophilia perpetuates real-life rape culture
A 17-year-old boy falls in love with a man seven years older than him in Call Me By Your Name, the novel-turned-film by André Aciman. Despite the criticism the author faced for the age gap depicted in his book, the story ultimately attained critical acclaim. The movie, based on Aciman’s work, was nominated for four Academy Awards. The success of the film effectively halted the discussion about its controversial relationship; concerns about the age gap became mere footnotes in our cultural memory. Aciman, riding on new recognition and fame, continued to write and enjoy respect within the literary community.
Then, in an interview from June with the Spanish news outlet eCartelera, Aciman said the following:
“The other day, talking with a friend, I told him, ‘I see 12-year-old girls and I already find them attractive,’ and he told me, ‘Me too, but you can’t talk about it.’ And I replied, ‘No, never.’ Because if you talk about it, you’re almost guilty of it. I do not commit the act, but you have no idea of the scabrous and disgusting ideas that come to our minds.”
Aciman’s language rationalizes sexual attraction to young girls. When he mentions the ideas that come to “our minds,” he seems to refer not only to himself and his friend but to men broadly. Aciman knows he is not alone in this experience. He expresses no issue with the thoughts as long as actions do not follow them. Aciman refutes the idea that he is guilty of anything because he keeps his actions under control.
However, the normalization of pedophilia has real impacts for children, especially girls and women. Plenty of men do act on their thoughts, and comments like Aciman’s only serve to empower them. It’s a bigger issue than the author recognizes: a Cornell University study from 2015 found that 85% of American women experienced street harassment before they turned 17. The perpetrators apparently agree with Aciman that their attraction to underage girls is okay.
While Aciman complains about not being able to discuss his feelings publicly, he fails to realize the larger implications of his words. His platform gives him the ability to influence many people. His fans may internalize his assertion that these thoughts are perfectly normal and acceptable. Aciman’s readers may take his words as proof that their own pedophilic thoughts are not a problem, or survivors of sexual trauma might interpret his statement as evidence that they are somehow at fault for what happened to them. Readers who trust Aciman could be seriously affected by his reprehensible statement, whether they find it affirming or blaming. This perpetuates the predatory culture that subjects girls to sexual harassment before they are even done with puberty.
This interview was the first time Aciman said anything overtly pedophilic, but his recent comments call to mind the past controversy surrounding the romanticization of Elio and Oliver’s relationship in Call Me By Your Name. The uproar over the age gap between the two main characters did not stop the book and movie from achieving success, but perhaps the story raised red flags that our society ultimately ignored. The idea that a fictional story, however troublesome, is harmless, is similar to Aciman’s suggestion that pedophilic thoughts are permissible. Aciman portrays the relationship in Call Me By Your Name in a positive light, thus romanticizing age gaps. If the author had described the process of an older man grooming a teenager, the plot would not have been so problematic. His audience would have put the book down with the message that what the older character did was manipulative and wrong. Instead, fans justified and endorsed the romance just like Aciman. Overtly promoting deviant ideas affects our culture in very real and dangerous ways.
The sequel to Call Me By Your Name, Find Me, came out in October, four months after Aciman’s statement about his attraction to 12-year-old girls. Mainstream media organizations, including The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Guardian, reviewed the book. None mention the author’s comments to eCartelera.
Despite recent media attention on sexual assault and the #MeToo movement, the handling of Aciman’s comments proves that rape culture persists. Aciman lamented the fact that people cannot talk about their attraction to children because they will be considered “almost guilty,” yet he has not been sufficiently held accountable for what he said. His fears that our so-called “cancel culture” would derail his career did not come to fruition. Instead of reporting on this incident, the mainstream media continues to publicize his work, thereby helping him advance his career. Our culture does not always “cancel” people who do wrong—in fact, men often get away with serious infractions. Rape culture is the real problem.
The 2016 presidential election revealed just how prevalent rape culture remains. Just weeks before election day, a tape from Access Hollywood came out of Donald Trump saying, “…When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything… grab them by the pussy.” His comments were met with swift backlash from both sides of the political spectrum, but in the end, his supporters were apparently undeterred. Trump admitted to using his status to sexually assault and intimidate women, and he became the most powerful person in the country.
Why did Americans so easily forgive Trump for the Access Hollywood tape? The future president explained it away, dismissing it as “locker room banter.” His justification echoes Aciman’s. He normalizes disrespect for women by suggesting that many men speak that way behind closed doors, similar to how Aciman alluded to the “scabrous and disgusting ideas that come to our minds.” The basis of both men’s arguments is the same: they’re just words!
Neither Trump nor Aciman were ever punished for their words. In fact, they were practically rewarded: Trump became president, and Aciman retained the respect of major media outlets. Predatory men complain that “cancel culture” unfairly harms their careers, but our culture is actually forgiving. When we dismiss comments like these as harmless words, we contribute to a culture that places powerful men’s careers above the safety of women and children.
Bridget Hagen is a second-year Journalism major who wants men to stop getting away with saying this shit. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.