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.

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