Can Plural Marriage be a Choice?


Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Feminist critics of polygyny—also called plural marriage, consisting of one man and more than one wife—have enumerated the ways that it is bad for women. Feminist scholar Susan Moller Okin argued that polygyny is fundamentally about men controlling women.

Likewise, media coverage of polygyny often decries the ways that polygynous wives are indoctrinated and brainwashed. For example, coverage of the TV documentary series Three Wives, One Husband about a Mormon fundamentalist family in Utah described how this “demoralising peek at polygamy in action afforded the chance to [gape] at otherwise ordinary Americans collectively brainwashing themselves.”

The author describes the “mind-bendingly irrational” justifications that the wives give of why they would choose to practice plural marriage, such as preferring to share a good man rather than having a bad one to oneself.

The underlying question is: why would a woman choose this patriarchal family structure in which she has to share her husband with other wives?

THE RESEARCH

In my forthcoming Gender & Society article, I provide an answer by examining the ways that the husband and wives relate to one another that enables women’s choices. In 2014, I conducted ethnographic research in Utah, including 21 interviews with 36 participants who were in current or former plural marriages (some interviews were one-on-one, and some were with the husband and wives as a group). Mormons began practicing plural marriage in the 1800s, when Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon Church) and included plural marriage as a religious commandment.

In 1890, the Mormon Church abandoned the practice, after which a Mormon fundamentalist movement grew that sees plural marriage as a requirement to enter the highest levels of paradise. An estimated 38,000 to 60,000 people live in plural Mormon fundamentalist families in North America, predominantly in Utah.

My research addresses whether plural marriage is bad for women and children. For some, it definitely is. Sally, for example, had said yes to bringing in a second wife when she was still in her early 20s. Later, she realized her mistake and left both the religion and her marriage.

For her, “the very dynamics of polygamy and that triangle of the male being up here, and the females being down here, it doesn’t matter how hard you try but there will never be equality.”

Her account reflected others, speaking to their constrained choices that allow husbands to control multiple wives. Families in which the husband exerts his power and in which there is strife among wives can lead to violence, such as stories of wives abusing each other and other wives’ children.

In contrast to plural families that breed rivalry and contention, I found that harmonious families perform gender in ways that are complementary. Studying these family interactions, I found men performed a “conciliatory masculinity”—a masculinity that combines traits such as leadership and non-normative ideals of emotional labor and conciliation, and women a “homosocial femininity”—strong bonds between women that attenuate the power of the patriarch, to build and sustain a balanced family life.

Specifically, the necessity to meet all the wives’ needs circumscribes the husband’s power. For example, Amy discussed how, when conflicts arise between her and her sister wife, they will often take this to their husband to act as mediator because they understand that “he loves her, he loves me.” The husband is compelled to perform this kind of emotional labor to make sure that everyone’s needs are being meet. In general, he cannot make family decisions without listening to the perspectives of all wives if he wants to have a harmonious family life.

Similar to evangelical Christianity, Mormon fundamentalism establishes men as the head of the family. Conciliatory masculinity necessitates a high standard for acting as head that is shaped in relation to femininity. Husbands make sacrifices to spend time with their large plural families, such as declining promotions at work that would demand too much time or watching less TV to spend time with children. Sacrifices such as these are usually expected of women, not men.

Samantha, a second wife in her late 40s, explained that being head means being a worthy husband to each wife, an objective that requires more sensitivity and emotion work than most monogamous men perform.

She stated emphatically, “I told a reporter once, ‘You will not meet a group of women that have higher expectations for men.’” Ultimately, wives expect men to set everyday rules in a manner that requires compassion and excellent listening skills to negotiate disagreements. 

Conciliatory masculinity is practiced in relation to homosocial femininity to provide an environment in which wives can work together. Wives are thus able to nurture emotional bonds to deflect jealousies and rivalry.

Tammy, married to Arch and Joan, recounted her view that jealousy is a form of immaturity. For her, it is possible “to truly just love that your husband loves your sister wife, because you love her too.”

Women described the benefits of having a sister wife or wives that allow them to work together to balance work and family responsibilities, such as decisions about who would stay home with the kids and who would work outside the home. In addition, nurturing homosocial femininity permits the wives to unite together to ensure that the husband does not overstep his bounds.

My research complicates the idea that all men are patriarchal and that all women are victims in polygynous families. The interactions of conciliatory masculinity and homosocial femininity ensure that women have some power in relationships where men are understood to be the head of all wives and children.

The takeaway

Nuanced understandings of men and women in plural marriages can inform policy. For example, in Utah, it is a felony to live with more than one spouse and “purport” to be married. Should men who seek to make their wives happy and provide a harmonious family life be felons?

Melanie Heath is an associate professor of sociology at McMaster University, Canada. Her research interests are in family, gender, sexuality, religion, and globalization. She is the author of One Marriage Under God: Campaign to Promote Marriage in America (2012, New York University Press).

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Constructing Spiritual Motherhood in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Sister Amélie grew up in the small village of Ngeba in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As a child, Sr. Amélie remembers seeing Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur ministering in her village, but she did not know what community the women belonged to until she began to study at their local primary school.

Although she was introduced to other Roman Catholic religious orders in the region, the Sisters of Notre Dame remained her favorite. Observing the kindness they showed to others, she decided she wanted to be like the women she had admired from a young age.

“What impressed me the most was their humanitarian work,” explained Sr. Amélie, “When they arrived in the village, they would go from house to house every morning to greet people. The sisters fetched water and gathered firewood for the sick. I told myself I just need to go to the Sisters of Notre Dame and become like them.”

When Amélie shared the desire to become a religious sister with her parents, her mother initially resisted, and she worried that her brother would also oppose the decision. Amélie’s classmates taunted her: “Why become a sister? It’s useless!”

Undeterred, Amélie entered the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1984 at age 22, professing the three religious vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience for the first time in 1988. Dressed in a brightly patterned African wrapper, pagne, and matching blouse according to the style of local sisters, Sr. Amélie smiled a little as she shared the memory with me.

When she meets the same friends today, they react differently. Some are happy to see how well she is doing while others are envious. Most of the young women Amélie grew up with did not finish their studies. Sr. Amélie believes they are leading more difficult lives than she, farming, caring for children, and quickly aging while she “stays young.”

Sr. Amélie is one of the 71,567 Roman Catholic sisters in Africa today. She belongs to the transnational Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a Belgian religious order that first sent missionary sisters to the newly colonized État Indépendant du Congo in 1894, and now has approximately 1,400 members living in sixteen countries across five continents.

When European sisters began evangelizing Africa at the end of the nineteenth century, they initially had no intention of welcoming local women into their communities. The first African sisters were segregated into diocesan orders founded specifically for black women during the 1920s and 1930s.

Even after African women were formally welcomed into international religious orders following the rise of African independence movements and the Second Vatican Council (1963–65), they faced immense obstacles. Not only did the first local sisters endure the ethnocentrism of the missionaries who formed them, but they also faced resistance from their families for giving up the valued roles of mother and wife.

According to the traditional culture of the Kongo people — a Bantu ethnic group that predates the colony and national state established under Belgian rule — women’s primary obligation is to bear children, produce “riches in human beings” (mbongo bantu), and repair the clan (londa kanda) by giving life to future generations. For women like Amélie, the conflict between fulfilling Western ideals of celibate religious sisterhood and responding to local gendered expectations regarding childbearing and kinship obligations remains a persistent source of tension.

The Research

While doing research for my book, Unequal Partners: In Search of Transnational Catholic Sisterhood, I interviewed 80 Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in the Democratic Republic of Congo, United States, and Belgium.

In my forthcoming Gender & Society article, I highlight the distinct experiences of Catholic sisters in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Taking lifelong vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, the 30 Congolese sisters I interviewed chose not to fulfill these local cultural expectations to become wives and mothers.

As we talked in community rooms and outdoor pavilions on the grounds of convent compounds across the cities of Kimwenza, Kisantu, and Lemfu, these women described the resistance they encountered to their religious vocations among family members, extended kin, and peers who could not comprehend their choice.

“For us, procreation is a very, very important value,” Sr. Élodie explained to me,” I received life and I am obliged to give life. It is through marriage and children that I must continue life. But now, I have a block. It is as if I cut off that life, those umbilical cords…to transmit life to others.”

In response to widespread disapproval among their family, friends, and community members, I found that sisters affirmed their communal, moral, and spiritual ties to others through their social ministries. Referring to themselves as “mothers of all,” many sisters explicitly rejected the notion that they could not mother within the convent, focusing on the education and moral formation they provide to youth throughout the region in schools, health centers, and women’s development programs.

In addition to helping sisters expand biological notions of motherhood and redefine the spaces where mothering work is performed, these social ministries provided institutional resources through which sisters could resist regional gender regimes that restrict girls’ education, women’s professional trajectories, and female landownership.

Whereas it is rare to find women in formal leadership positions in many of the villages where they work, sisters administer their own institutions, including schools, dispensaries, and women’s development centers. Sisters also own and manage the land surrounding their convents, including 60 hectares of farmland, which is unusual since traditional practices do not allow women direct access to land rights outside of marriage.

Although most sisters remain in gender-traditional fields of education and health care, they are beginning to enter male-dominated occupations and professions. There are Congolese Sisters of Notre Dame who are working as theologians, linguists, veterinarians, and agricultural engineers, as well as an electrician, lawyer, information technologist, psychologist, anthropologist, medical doctor, laboratory technician, and an auto mechanic.

This is significant in a country where women remain underrepresented in most sectors of the formal economy, and are much less likely than male workers to be engaged in wage employment. In the words of Sr. Simone, who manages the Province’s farmland, “Women are capable of doing any work, no exceptions.”

The Takeaway

The religious women I studied could not completely undo local gender expectations through their religious practices. The ways Congolese Catholic sisters interpret their religious vows and subsequently do religion is clearly shaped by cultural expectations and gender ideals.

Although Congolese sisters make an exceptional commitment to their faith by professing religious vows that seem to conflict with cultural expectations to become wives and mothers, they continue to be influenced by local gender ideals.

Making the radical choice to live outside the institutions of marriage and biological family, sisters do not ignore the pressure to revere motherhood. Instead, sisters draw on Catholic notions of spiritual motherhood to avoid the stigma of childlessness and to redefine the space where feminine care giving is performed.

They do their mothering work in schools, health centers, and other social ministries. Doing religion is inseparable from doing gender as sisters embody alternative ways of being a woman in post-colonial Congolese society through their religious practices.

Casey Clevenger is a Visiting Research Scholar in the Department of Sociology at Brandeis University. Her forthcoming book, Unequal Partners: In Search of Transnational Catholic Sisterhood, is an ethnographic study of Catholic sisters in the United States, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Belgium. In addition to her research on gender and religion, Casey studies immigration and healthcare chaplaincy. 

Does having kids make you happier?

Did you know that past studies found parents to be less satisfied with life than non-parents? This is known as the ‘parental happiness gap’.

The parental happiness gap might have been a result of ‘bad’ decision-making due to social pressure and limited knowledge about one’s future situation as a parent. But, whatever may have been true in the past, our forthcoming Gender & Society article “Closing the happiness gap” suggests that the happiness gap has virtually disappeared in the 21st century, at least in Germany.

The decision whether or not to have children is influenced by social circumstance and rational consideration.  It can be a conscious decision based on knowledge about sex, reproduction, and pregnancy, as well as the anticipated social and financial consequences of parenthood. But if parenthood is generally what people desire and choose, why should there be a parental happiness gap?

Israeli sociologist Orna Donath, whose studies on “regretting motherhood” have gained widespread attention, suggests that women do not seem to be as free in their decision to have children as we like to think.  Motherhood tends to be presented as a blessing, the way to female happiness and fulfillment. Alternative accounts are far and few between, even if reality often falls short of these excessively high expectations. To speak freely of the negative aspects of motherhood – or parenthood, more generally – was in fact taboo until very recently.

The mothers in Donath’s study spoke of stress, boredom, a lack of time to themselves, changes to their body, limited professional opportunities, and financial strain. In public, however, the focus has been firmly and almost exclusively on the bliss of motherhood. Children seem to come with a promise of happiness – reality, however, is often a different story.

We wondered if the happiness gap still existed in Germany because mothers have made substantial gains in terms of professional and social opportunities there in recent decades. Women today can more easily opt out of motherhood and enjoy greater freedom in motherhood   – to pursue a career, use professional childcare and take parental leave, for example. These choices should, in theory, result in more people living the lives they truly want for themselves –with or without children.

The Research

Indeed, we found in our study that the levels of life satisfaction of mothers and childless women have converged, as have those of mothers and father. We analyzed a data sample from the German Socio-Economic Panel (GSOEP) consisting of more than 18,000 women and almost 12,000 men aged 16 to 55 and over 2000 transitions to parenthood between 1984 and 2015.

A series of hybrid panel regression models show a closing parental happiness gap, which we interpret to be the result of increasing equality among parents and non-parents in terms of education, occupation, and standard of living We find that the political and cultural climate plays a significant role as well, as family-friendly policies and the erosion of normative societal pressure have given rise to an increasing variety of lifestyles.

In Germany, where conservative family values were dominant throughout the 20th century, studies reported a happiness gap and decreased maternal life satisfaction. However, over the past three decades, the strictly gendered parenthood roles of homemaker and provider have been replaced by a much greater variety of family arrangements, and our research shows that German parents are now just as happy with their lives as those without children

We believe our findings reflect the new cultural acceptance of frank conversations about the realities of having children as well as the decline of gendered parenthood norms. In Germany today, having children is truly becoming a matter of choice, and egalitarian parenting is becoming the new ideal.

Today, people no longer have children simply because they are expected to, but rather because, having heard it all – the good, the bad, and the ugly, they desire to be parents. They are also able to select the family arrangements that best suit their needs.

The decline of normative gender expectations in heterosexual couples leads to a measurable gain in individual freedom and a significant increase in life satisfaction for parents and non-parents alike.

Klaus Preisner studied social sciences at the HU Berlin and obtained a doctorate and habilitation at the University of Zurich. Klaus’ research is on family, generations, life course and the welfare state.

Franz Neuberger studied sociology at the LMU Munich, doctorate at the University of Zurich. Since 2015, Franz has been a scientific consultant at the German Youth Institute. Research focus: Social inequality, family sociology, quality of life research, quantitative methods.

Ariane Bertogg studied sociology at the University of Zurich and the Stockholm University, had received a doctorate at the University of Zurich. Since 2017, Ariane has done a post-doc at the University of Konstanz with research focused on life course, family sociology, welfare states, quantitative methods.

Julia M. Schaub studied Education at PHZH (Switzerland) and Queen’s University (Canada), and Sociology at the University of Zurich. Since 2017, Julia has been an undergraduate research assistant at the UZH Institute of Sociology.

Letting Companies off the Hook: How Top Executives Explain Away Inequality

“The question I have is: do we really have a problem? Does [our company] have a problem? From the data I’ve seen, I don’t think so. I think the industry and this country potentially has a problem.”

This is what one high-level executive, Mike (pseudonyms used throughout), told me when I asked him about the causes of gender inequality in the technology industry.

In new research to be published in Gender & Society, I report on a year-long case study of a Silicon Valley technology company implementing a gender equality initiative. I explore how high-level executives’ explanations for inequality impact the change efforts they pursue. I find that executives tend to attribute responsibility to the broader society (as Mike does), or to individuals, rather than the organization.

Attributing inequality to societal explanations exclusively presumes broader cultural norms must change before gender inequality can be reduced. As demonstrated in Mike’s quote, these explanations often serve to exempt companies from responsibility for creating positive change.

Attributing inequality to individualistic explanations, also common among executives, points to unconscious biases in individuals. Executives might focus on men (e.g. making biased decisions when choosing whom to hire or promote), and/or women (e.g. failing to take risks or assert themselves.) Executives who hold these beliefs about inequality tend to pursue mitigation strategies such as unconscious bias trainings, mentorship programs, and developmental programs. While such efforts can be highly beneficial, if organizations stop there, they risk perpetuating structural forms of inequality that can be more difficult to eradicate. Research shows that without an organizational commitment to change, unconscious bias trainings can even exacerbate inequality.

In contrast, organizational approaches to reducing inequality would theoretically include efforts like changing recruiting procedures to access a wider array of candidates, using clear and specific evaluation criteria during hiring and performance evaluations, and ensuring pay and promotion decisions follow a fair process. However, executives rarely considered such approaches.

One intriguing question remains, beyond this study. Why do executives tend to favor individualistic and societal explanations for inequality? Why is it so hard for executives to see the organizational drivers of inequality?

Perhaps it is a symptom of broader cultural individualism, particularly in the U.S., and even more particularly in Silicon Valley. Or perhaps organizational incentives actively encourage and reward individualistic mindsets. Perhaps maintaining an individualistic view helps executives feel a sense of control in an otherwise disempowering situation. Providing executives with education about organizational strategies to reduce inequality might help them identify and improve organizational practices and procedures that contribute to inequality.

If executives can learn to identify problems in the way their organizations hire, sort, advance, and reward employees, they can hopefully begin to remedy important organizational sources of inequality.

Alison T. Wynn is a Research Associate with the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab. She received a PhD in sociology from Stanford University and a BA in English from Duke University. Her research examines organizational policies and practices that may inadvertently create or reinforce inequality. In particular, she studies recruiting practices, perceptions of cultural fit, flexibility programs, and gender equality initiatives in industries such as technology, management consulting, and academic medicine. 

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS: SPECIAL ISSUE OF GENDER & SOCIETY

Photo by: George Joch

This is a Call for Submissions for a Special Issue of Gender & Society: “Gender Transformations of Higher Education Institutions” .

The Guest Editor is Julia McQuillan (University of Nebraska) 

The Guest Deputy Editors are Sheryl Skaggs (University of Texas, Dallas) and Kevin Stainback (Purdue University)

In 2001, the National Science Foundation (NSF) started to fund “Institutional Transformation” grants as part of a program called “ADVANCE” in recognition that the underrepresentation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields required changes in institutions and not just individuals. Since the ADVANCE program started, numerous gender scholars have brought a sociological gender lens to programs designed for institutional change in higher education. The goal of the NSF ADVANCE program was to recruit, retain, and promote more women in STEM fields. Research and publications on gender and STEM in organizations have burgeoned in the last two decades. Feminist and gender scholars often collaborate with multidisciplinary teams to report the results of their efforts, often publishing in interdisciplinary journals that focus more on outcomes than theories. Only a handful of articles use intersectional frameworks. 

It is now time to assess what we know about the success and weaknesses of the attempts to transform higher education in feminist directions. We need to have theoretical explanations that help to predict success and failure at organizational attempts to bring women and people of color into STEM disciplines. We need to develop theories that integrate and guide understanding of the transformation of higher education institutions. 

The aim of this special issue is to both compile empirical knowledge about strengths and weaknesses of different change methodologies, and generate theoretical insights to explain the outcomes of attempts at organizational change. Global analyses show that countries vary in how much STEM fields incorporate women. Government supported national efforts in the United States and Europe emphasize the need for more workers in STEM fields who will represent multiple constituencies. Therefore, gender scholars have an opportunity to review successes and failures of existing efforts, identify theoretical gaps, and provide next generation frameworks to create higher education institutions that reflect the populations that they serve. 

Many scholars involved in institutional transformation efforts focus on one institution and prioritize evaluation over research. The special issue will be a forum for feminist scholars who are engaged in efforts to create greater gender equity in STEM fields and emphasize broader theoretical issues in their work such as the relationships between higher education and other institutions, including K-12 education, employers, parents, and the media. What does it mean to try to increase women in STEM fields when the gender categories are multiplying? If more women enter STEM fields, does that mean more men must enter non-STEM fields? Or should non-STEM fields shrink? Can research on ADVANCE projects inform theories and research on work organizations more generally? How does gender transformation of organizations coordinate with integrating people of color, people of all abilities and social class backgrounds? What conditions are necessary for an organization to claim “transformed” status? How much can institutions “push” gender integration in organizations with considerable employee input (i.e. faculty governance) and considerable hierarchy (i.e. faculty rank system)? For this special issue, we seek articles by scholars across the globe working to create gender transformation, who have had “successes” and “failures” and who are applying existing theories, plus recognizing the urgent need for new conceptualizations.

With the focus on “Gender Transformations of Higher Education Institutions”, we encourage submissions that include, but are not limited to leadership, intersectionality, power differentials, policies, organizations, social psychology, identities, sexuality, race/ethnicity, social movements, and comparative and international studies. All submissions should include some aspect of the strengths and weaknesses of recent attempts to transform institutions of higher education, what works, what does not work, and why.

All papers must make both a theoretical and empirical contribution to the study of gender.

Completed manuscripts, due February 1, 2020, should be submitted online to http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/gendsoc and should specify in the cover letter that the paper is to be considered for the special issue.

For additional information, please contact any of the guest editors for this issue contact Special Issue Editor, Julia McQuillan at jmquillan2@unl.edu

To View this Call for Papers on the SWS Website, please click HERE.

“Men” are not Born, but Made – by Women, Too

men drinking
“A Russian man proposes a toast at a school class reunion in a Kaluga park.” (Photo by author)

Simone de Beauvoir famously argued that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Yet “men” are also not born, but made. And importantly, men are made by women, too.

Behind any historically masculine ritual, whether it’s drinking with fraternity brothers in college or watching football with family members on Thanksgiving, there are women shaping the boundaries of those rituals.

Increasingly women participate in masculine rituals (e.g. certainly women drink at parties or watch football), but women continue to shape masculine rituals which can change the boundaries of masculinity itself.

After writing my book about Russian families (2015), Women without Men, I remained troubled by the literature on men’s heavy drinking and related masculine rituals that downplayed what women do to manage the men’s behaviors.

While drinking in Russia is an extreme case, due to alarmingly high rates of men’s drinking and large gender gaps in drinking, it allows us to see how gender norms are established, maintained, and sometimes directly challenged by women and men.

The Research

Through living with Russian families and interviewing more than 150 Russians, including single and married mothers and some men, I learned that women in heterosexual relationships are expected to engage in the extensive invisible labor of managing men’s drinking practices – drinking with them, covering for men drinking at work, doing the lion’s share of household chores and childcare so that men still have “leisure time” to drink. Although most Russian women also work for pay, on top of doing most household labor and childcare, the work they do to try to “produce” responsible men has been neglected.

Rather than passively coping with men’s heavy drinking, Russian women are expected to manage it so that men’s money keeps coming home. They most frequently do so in conditions not of their own making. Besides a highly unequal division of labor at home, a gender pay gap where men significantly out earn women and a culture that is often hostile towards feminism, women do their best to accommodate some aspects of men’s drinking – for the sake of their families’ well-being – while resisting other aspects by trying to set some limits on men’s behaviors. Men’s behaviors impose demands on women, especially when their families’ survival is at stake.

In Russia, women routinely take on extensive invisible labor. I call these complex strategies for accommodating men’s behaviors, while also resisting some aspects, collusive femininity. Women frequently engage in the invisible labor of managing men. However, women’s invisible labor also puts them in a “double bind.”

Women are performing this invisible labor to ensure the well-being of their children, yet through performing the work of managing men they are ultimately supporting men’s entitlement to drink.

We need to make visible the many ways that women shape the boundaries of masculinity – including masculine rituals such as drinking – by highlighting women’s extensive, invisible management labor in families and the double binds many women face.

Of course, some mothers reach a breaking point where they are simply unwilling to manage men’s drinking (or infidelity, or whatever harmful behavior it might be) any longer and they embrace an alternative femininity – mostly through becoming single mothers.

What women do, and what women refuse to do, shapes masculinity and what men are allowed to become. When women have had enough with men’s behaviors, whether in terms of workplace harassment – witness the #MeToo movement – or heavy drinking, gender inequality may, in time, be challenged.

Jennifer Utrata is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Puget Sound. She is the author of the award-winning Women without Men: Single Mothers and Family Change in the New Russia (Cornell, 2015). She recently finished an ACLS fellowship year at the University of Washington researching a second book tentatively entitled The ‘Third Shift’: Intensive Grandparenting and Family Inequality. Her current research focuses on how intergenerational supports shape gender and family inequality among parents in the United States. You can find her on Twitter @JenUtrata.

Picturing Sexual Harm in Leaving Neverland

On January 25, 2019, HBO released Leaving Neverland, a four-hour documentary that chronicles allegations of child sexual abuse against pop icon Michael Jackson. The film focuses on the experiences of two boys – Wade Robson and James Safechuck – who were part of Jackson’s coterie in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

They were young boys when the abuse started, respectively seven and ten years old. Robson and Safechuck tell disturbingly parallel patterns of abuse, whereby Jackson groomed them to initiate and normalize sexual contact that continued for years.

The Michael Jackson estate filed a $100 million lawsuit against HBO days before the documentary premiered. Robson and Safechuck had also filed civil lawsuits against the estate in 2013.

While lawsuits matter, what fascinates me is how the documentary constructs a sense of sexual harm for its viewers.

The film is very useful if we use it to help understand what research shows actually happens when prosecutors describe child sexual abuse to judges, jurors, and other actors in the criminal justice system.

The film centers the adult voices of Robson, Safechuck, and their family members in a talk show-style format. The interviews are accompanied with photographs, home videos, and contemporary media footage. It is haunting in its portrayal of the boys’ vulnerability. But what is perhaps most striking about the film is less the horrific memories of abuse than how it raises the question of what exactly is sexual harm in the first place.

For many years, Robson and Safechuck repeatedly denied having experienced sexual abuse. In 1993, their refutations helped to shore up Jackson’s public reputation during a lawsuit brought by two other boys and again in 2005 during a criminal prosecution in which Jackson was charged with multiple felony counts of child molestation. Toward the end of the documentary, Robson explains calmly why he protected Jackson for so long: “I didn’t feel like I was hurt by it. I didn’t feel like anything bad had happened to me.”

Robson’s perception of his childhood experience is not unique. For a variety of reasons – including affection for their abuser, shame, or a strategic normalization of premature sexualization – many children who are sexually abused do not necessarily perceive their experiences as harmful at the time.

This does not mean child sexual abuse is morally or legally tolerable, but it does create a set of conditions in which prosecutors must craft compelling narratives of harm even in the absence of support or clarity from the victim him or herself.

The film’s dramatic tension hinges on the juxtaposition of the memory of innocent, near angelic boys, as their adult selves narrate childhood experiences of sexual abuse. The first two hours of the film documents how these boys’ families became enthralled with and then ensnared in Jackson’s world. After that, Robson and Safechuck, who seem to be ordinary men in their 30s, speak with restrained emotion mostly about the collateral damage caused by their association with Jackson and his extraordinary lifestyle. Both parents’ marriages fall apart and their families become fractured. With their mothers fixated on Hollywood fame, the boys are increasingly isolated from supportive social networks. The downward spiral culminates with Robson’s father’s suicide in 2002.

Just as the film has to address men who didn’t come to understand childhood molestation as abuse until their adulthood, so too, sex crime prosecutors often confront similar challenges.

How do you construct a convincing narrative of sexual harm even when sexual abuse may leave few physical traces, and adverse effects may take years to manifest?

It was not until their early adulthood that Robson and Safechuck began experiencing debilitating anxiety and depression. It still took them some time to connect their respective mental health struggles with Jackson’s abuse. Director Dan Reed deals with this ambiguity by building a cinematic construction of sexual harm in which the white heterosexual family – as symbolized by their precocious sons’ sexual innocence and budding masculinity – is shattered by the strange and threatening deviance of Jackson. In the film’s final minutes, Safechuck’s mother concludes, “He took my son’s childhood away. He took the man he could have been away.”

The Research

This film’s approach to sexual abuse is remarkably similar to constructions of sexual harm that I discovered in my interviews with 43 prosecutors who had extensive experience working on child sexual abuse cases. They situated the harm within victims’ gendered and sexed selves. Prosecutors often identified myriad ways that experiences of sexual abuse disrupted children’s heteronormative development through adolescence and then adulthood. For instance, girls were portrayed to grow into a life of sexual promiscuity, and boys were portrayed as becoming sexual offenders, or gay, as if gayness was a problem. The prosecutors I talked with argued that child sexual abuse disrupts the reproduction of the normative social order. They based their legal arguments on commonsense ideas about the world, rather than any particular knowledge of the scientific or therapeutic literature.

In the documentary, the threat to Robson’s and Safechuck’s manhood is ultimately resolved when their adult selves settle into stable heterosexual partnerships. Their wives appear toward the end of the film, and they are conventionally beautiful women who exude love and warmth. While their absence from the first half of the film makes perfect sense, as they were not around during the childhood years of abuse, their presence brings to question the long-term harm done to these men. Just how far did those delightful little boys deviate from the heteronormative life course?

Although Robson and Safechuck both struggled with the effects of their sexual abuse, they were ultimately able to reclaim normative masculine identities, despite Safechuck’s mother’s fears about his potentially irrevocably damaged manhood. The prosecutors in my sample, however, tended to have decidedly less optimistic appraisals about the likelihood of sexual abuse survivors having successful lives. One stated, in all seriousness, “I’m not saying that every porno actress has been molested, but I’d be willing to bet that a large percentage of them have been.” My research shows how prosecutors imagine sexual harm as a disruption to the heterosexual normative life possibilities of child victims. In both the film and my research, the simple rights of the children themselves to bodily integrity seem to take back seat to the presumed need for young people to grow up and easily fit into our normative gender structure.

Jamie L. Small is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Dayton. She studies the intersection of law and sexual violence, and she is currently working on a book manuscript about the legal construction of men who are sexual victims. She also enjoys film, photography, and novels.