Wednesday, 30 September 2009

1977: Another World, Another Planet

In 1977, girls who had sex with anyone other than a steady boyfriend without putting up some kind of resistance, albeit token, were widely considered at best to have no class and at worst to be sluts or slags.[1]

While many women, and much of society as a whole, saw a woman's primary role to be to please men, many men were driven by the thrill of the chase, where the concepts of male conquest and the art of seduction were still the norm for heterosexual relations. And, if you think about it, what is seduction if not leading someone to a place they neither expect nor really want to go? And what are the conquered if not victims? Yesterday's seduction is today’s date rape.

That evening at Jack Nicholson's house, Roman Polanski probably thought he was only doing what Jason King did every week on TV. Men were expected to smooth-talk girls into bed, and if champagne and jacuzzis were involved, so much the better. ("I do not believe it was Mr. Polanski's intention to frighten me or cause me harm." --Samantha Geimer in a letter to the L.A. Superior Court, 1997.)

In 1977, still a couple of decades before paedophiliaphobia kicked in, hardcore child pornography was on open sale in several European countries - the "miracle" then-West Germany, for one - in the form of glossy magazines, complete with the publisher's masthead on nonchalant display. It was simply a niche market - not unlike the ones for coin collectors or model-railway enthusiasts - and the girls depicted were often a lot younger than 13.

In some U.S. states the age of consent for girls was 15 or even 12. In Mississippi there was no age of consent for a girl to marry at all, provided her parents approved of the relationship.[2]

The rules weren't quite so lax for gay people. Consensual gay sex in private (as we say now - back then, with full Biblical wrath, it was still termed "sodomy") had ceased to be a felony in California only the year before the Polanski-Geimer case.[3]

Such attitudes may seem disturbingly sexist and homophobic to us now, but then it was a world in which older men who used their wiles to seduce young teenagers without physically harming them were not considered to be predatory paedophiles - only the Moors Murderers and the dreaded men in cars were that - but just studs who specialised in cherry-picking because they happened to have a weakness for fresh fruit.[4] Slang can be quite telling about the era it belongs to.

The sociosexual morĂ©s of 1977 were so utterly different from those of today that it wasn't the pubescent girl who people saw as the victim in Nabokov's Lolita; it was the "poor", "hopelessly besotted" Humbert Humbert.

1977 and 2009: different strokes for different folks - and different crimes for different times.


1. Women were still "girls" then. In the UK, girls considered attractive by men were "crumpet" - a free-market commodity that was measured in "pieces". If deemed unattractive, they were "dogs".

2. This explains why Jerry Lee Lewis was able to marry a 13-year-old cousin of his.

3. Between 1947 and 1976, Californians convicted under the sodomy laws were monitored on a "register of sex offenders" (ring any bells?) and had to report any change of address.

4. Two years before he met Samantha Geimer, Polanski had a brief sexual relationship with Nastassja Kinski, apparently with her father’s blessing. She was 15.