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Can't call it love

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NILANJANA S. ROY   |   Published 08.08.04, 12:00 AM

Juliet was barely 14 when she met Romeo; Lolita was 12 when Humbert Humbert seduced her. Today, we’d disapprove of young Juliet’s status as a child bride; Lolita would be in therapy as a paedophile’s victim.

Mary Kay Letourneau’s affair with Vili Fualaau exposes the double standards that govern contemporary sexual mores. Letourneau was a 34-year-old schoolteacher with four children and a troubled marriage when she began her affair with Fualaau, then 12 years old. Letourneau eventually served seven years in prison under the statutory rape laws; but she and Fualaau had two children together. Fualaau was just 14 when his daughter, Audrey, was born; barely 16 when they had the second child, Alexis.

Letourneau was released this week and will face the same restrictions that govern child sex offenders: she is on parole, must report future romantic relationships, and a court order restrains her from meeting Fualaau. Now 21, he’s asking that the order be overturned.

The media has reported the Letourneau affair with a blend of sympathy, prurience and disapproval. Some headlines refer to her as the “child rapist”, perfectly accurate in the technical sense of the term. Others have treated the “love affair” with more sympathy, using phrases such as “prison can’t kill their love”.

The confusion arises only because Letourneau’s the wrong gender. A man in her position would have been pilloried as a pervert; when a male schoolteacher does seduce a young girl, we know exactly what to think. In cases where the victim has expressed a strong emotional connection with her seducer, society’s guardians are at hand to absolve her of guilt but to also explain that her feelings have been exploited by someone who knew what he was doing was wrong.

In my mid-30s, I find it impossible to understand Letourneau. We accept that children are not responsible for their actions; we accept that children are vulnerable. The 20-year age gap in itself is not that important: if Letourneau’s affair had commenced when she was 50 and Fualaau was 30, he would be seen as an adult. When Letourneau seduced him, though, there was only one adult in the equation. Letourneau showed no respect, no genuine caring and no sense of responsibility towards the boy whose life she changed so drastically.

In the years after Letourneau went to prison, Fualaau drifted. He displayed suicidal tendencies; he is now jobless and lives with friends; he has two daughters who are only slightly younger than him. Mary Letourneau must have had her compulsions; but that doesn’t justify the damage she’s inflicted on everyone.

If Vili Fualaau and Mary Letourneau decide to get back together, I do believe that they have a right to make that choice now that Fualaau’s an adult.

But I believe that rather than dressing it up as a love affair between two twin souls separated only by the arbitrary barrier of age, we should see it clearly as a relationship between a victim and the person who had no business exploiting him.

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