Michael Jackson: His confusion was our culture’s confusion

I’m saddened by Michael Jackson’s untimely death.  I have enjoyed all his studio albums since Off the Wall was released in 1979, seen him live with his brothers on the Victory tour in 1985, and reviewed Bad and History for print publications.  Better than any other popular musician of the rock era his music and dancing communicated (secular) joy.  The way the celebrity media (not the music media) has turned him into a freak show the past two decades was disgusting.  Even more disgusting is the way that same media has feasted on his death: how much we hear about his unusual lifestyle and innuendo and rumor regarding his final days; how little appreciation we hear about his great music (thanks NPR and The New York Times).

However this blog is devoted to law and the culture surrounding family law.   For purposes of this blog it is our culture’s reaction to Michael Jackson’s relationship with adolescent boys that interests me.  As to whether Michael Jackson is guilty of sexually molesting boys, I have no informed opinion–and no one I’ve seen pontificating on the issue appears to have one either.  What I am sure of is that Michael Jackson is guilty of failing to understand our culture’s line between physical intimacy with young men and sexual intimacy with young men.  Of course our culture doesn’t understand where that line is drawn either.

Our culture is tremendously confused about the physical intimacy that post pubescent males are allowed with others.  As a result, many young men are starved for physical intimacy.  About the time I reached puberty, I grew “too old” to hug my dad or mom–or friends or anyone.  It wasn’t until a few years later, when I started engaging in sexual intimacy with my female peer, that I realized that physical intimacy was something I missed–I’d simply forgotten how good a reassuring hug felt.  I doubt my experience was unique.  Our culture expects adolescent boys to forgo physical intimacy and to pursue sexual intimacy.

I believe that part of what Michael Jackson was doing by having barely pubescent boys stay with him at Neverland Ranch or sleep in a bed with him was an attempt to allow these boys physical intimacy with an adult male (I am not discounting that Michael may have also been seeking sexual intimacy).  Given Michael’s history as an abused child with a madly violent father, I suspect this was his attempt to provide these boys something he believed his adolescence lacked.  Even if his acts were not benevolent, he may have seen them as such.  Being attacked for these acts may have fueled the paranoia that was a subtext of much of his adult music.

A couple of the DSS sexual abuse cases I have successfully defended during my practice were (I believe) instances in which a teenager–unused to physical intimacy from adult men–confused physical intimacy with sexual intimacy: a reassuring hug or a kiss on the cheek becomes, in the child’s mind, something more.  My clients truly believed their actions were appropriate; the child (and the caseworker) (and the medical examiners) clearly believed that something sexual had taken place; our culture is Janus.

Our culture has tried so hard to cleave physical intimacy from sexual intimacy that new mothers can be surprised that they sometimes become sexually aroused by breastfeeding their child.  To me the surprise is not that they find this sexually arousing but that they find this arousal confusing.   Before I went to law school, I was a part time assistant at a pre-school.  During law school I was a big brother.  Even twenty years ago, I knew enough of this unclear line to not even approach it in my actions towards the children I cared for.  However, after fifteen years of seeing our culture’s inability to create a clearly understood line between proper physical intimacy and improper sexual intimacy, I would not do such work again.  To be accused of doing something inappropriate with a child is a stain that never comes clean.

We live in a culture that acts as though there is a clear line between physical intimacy and sexual intimacy.  I agree there are acts that do not approach that line: patting a child on the shoulder, clearly okay; anal sex with a child, clearly not okay.  However the line is not so clear about adult men hugging a child; kissing a child; sleeping in the same bed as a child.  Put this line at one spot and we may allow adolescents little physical intimacy with adults (at which point they might, in response, seek sexual intimacy to obtain what they lack).  Putting this line at another spot might allow sexual intimacy between adults and children that we might not wish to tolerate.  Isn’t is possible that Michael’s problem may have been not where this line was placed but that we have failed to clearly place this line and act as if we have: one person’s appropriate physical intimacy is another person’s clearly inappropriate sexual behavior?  Michael’s confusion is our culture’s confusion; our culture’s confusion is Michael’s confusion.

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  • A huge problem for all people working with youth. Current standards with the Boy Scouts call for no physical contact with youth (or other adults) and two adults not related by blood or marriage being present with any young person at all times. It’s a constant focus and a major emphasis in training. Implementing it on the ground is demanding. It limits activities.

    If people hadn’t evolved to have non sexual physical contact with one another, this wouldn’t be such a problem. Unfortunately, were physiologically wired to desire and need this sort of contact. The elimination of structured social rituals which support it renders the problem even more complex.

    America is a confused culture that doesn’t work very well in a lot of ways. Michael Jackson had the wealth and power to ignore and escape a lot of ordinary limits, which meant he had the opportunity to get into real trouble. He made huge mistakes, even if he was legally innocent.

    A series of commercials running on television presents a sports coach who gives a player a ride home talking about how he may be sexually abusing your child. It’s certainly frightening and effective at inducing even more paranoia, but it’s also a devastating and corrosive slam at every coach, scoutmaster and church youth volunteer in the United States.

    What we need to understand is this. In America isolating people socially to deprive them of the gratifications of intimacy is part of the mechanism that drives commerce. The purpose of affection, love and sex is to use the lack of access to it to drive people to Walmart. It helps make sure half the women in my community feel they need antidepressants. It’s the equivalent of poisoning the water supply and then selling Aquafina for ten dollars a bottle.

    Perhaps that is what drove Mark Sanford to Argentina. The costs of what we’re doing can be very high indeed.

    Something far more decent and just could be worked out, but there’s no money in it. Too bad our society no longer produces the material wealth necessary to fully distract people from this problem. Lets hope the meds remain affordable.

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