Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 10 minutes (2,500 words)
At the end of An Open Secret, the 2015 documentary by Amy J. Berg about child sex abuse in Hollywood, a card reads: “The filmmakers emphasize that this is not a gender based issue. We chose to tell these specific stories, but they are representations of a greater issue that affects both boys and girls.” It was an odd thing to read after watching a 99-minute film — one that could not secure a distributor and was self-released on Vimeo — in which no girls were mentioned. Whether or not it was intentional, the statement had the effect of equating the two genders, erasing any nuance that might exist in a male victim versus a female victim. It leaves the impression that the abuse we predominantly talk about — which, in our current climate, targets girls and women — is the standard. So the way girls and women are mistreated and how they react to this mistreatment is how all of us do. The fallout from Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby and R. Kelly is the fallout from Michael Jackson and Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer and Gary Goddard.
Maybe it’s the numbers — according to Dr. Richard Gartner, author of Betrayed as Boys: Psychodynamic Treatment of Sexually Abused Men, twice as many girls (one in three) as boys (one in six) are sexually abused. So girls take priority. But it’s more than that. Rape culture means that when you hear the allegations against Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Jeffrey Epstein, Larry Nassar, you are surprised at the scope of their actions, but not at the gender of their victims. When you see a Hollywood party overflowing with teen girls carted in to appease a room full of grey-haired execs, it is status quo. Casting couches have been around forever, right? But a party full of teen boys, what the hell does that mean?! Maybe my perception of these male-dominated parties is just skewed because I haven’t normalized male sexuality, so when I see it, it appears abnormal. “To me it seems like there is an overrepresentation of young boys being abused, but that can’t be right?” I hear myself waffle while interviewing Anne Henry, co-founder of BizParentz, an advocacy group for child actors. But her response is immediate. “No, it is right,” she says. “It’s not just your perception.”
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The World Health Organization defines child sex abuse as “the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend and is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared, or else that violate the laws or social taboos of society.” Here “child” may as well be “girl.” A study of 40 countries from earlier this year found that only five of them — Cambodia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and South Korea — “collect prevalence data for boys related to child sexual exploitation.” The Economist Intelligence Unit also found that the laws and support services are predominantly directed towards girls. “Often this is bundled up into an issue of violence against women, and therefore it is catering to girls rather than boys,” a consultant for EIU told The Guardian. But the bundling makes little sense when you consider the incidence of male child sex abuse. While it is not one in two as it is with girls, the frequency of exploitation — this includes indirect abuse, such as photography — of boys under 16, according to Dr. Gartner, is still fairly high at one in four. Not to mention boys are also inclined to underreport.
“As a parent, you don’t think about having to protect a boy as much as you imagine that you have to protect a girl,” says BizParentz’ Anne Henry. As a society, we don’t think about it either. We tell girls not to go to certain places, and if they do, not to go alone. Few places are off limits to boys and, if anything, they are asked to protect their mothers, sisters, girlfriends. Having said that, Henry, whose three kids were in showbiz, never sent any of them to parties. She’s heard about Bryan Singer’s soirees for decades, though (which makes you wonder how MANY boys he affected…) — “Nobody would send kids there.” But then she corrects herself, because of course somebody sent their kids there, but they were specific types of somebodies. They were somebodies from someplaces far away from Hollywood, places like the Midwest, where mom acted as chaperone while dad worked (if there was a dad) and took her kid to talent competitions — Henry calls them “meat markets” — and bought questionable acting classes and hired questionable managers because more people were around telling them that was the right thing to do than that it was the wrongest thing. Per Henry, “From that point on they’ve branded themselves as prey.”
Child actors are particularly good prey when they have less stable family lives — in The Atlantic‘s expose on Bryan Singer, one victim said his mom considered convicted sex offender Marc Collins-Rector a substitute father figure. They are also considered unreliable witnesses — not only are they kids, they lie for a living — and, as aspiring stars, they have everything to lose (three men who spoke about their abuse for the first time to The Atlantic remained anonymous because they still had a “fear of retaliation”). But the most important part of all this is location — Hollywood is a place where real world rules don’t apply. There are no offices there, really, and while sets are protected, parties are not. And parties are work. So it’s not like anything goes, but almost, and if you have enough power, definitely. “There’s a lot of blurring, but that’s why predators invade this work because there’s so much blur,” explains Henry. “They know they can take advantage of grey area, so they do.”
This is the perfect spot for an agent like Martin Weiss, who became so close to one client’s family, that when he sexually assaulted their son, the victim decided not to say anything because, as he said in An Open Secret, Weiss “was really cool, everybody liked him.” (In 2012, Weiss plead no contest to “committing lewd acts” on a child under the age of 14 and was sentenced to a year in county jail.) And for producer Gary Goddard, who was accused of abusing a number of boys on Disneyland rides. And for Kevin Spacey, who Anthony Rapp, then 14 years old, accused of laying on top of him at a party. In Hollywood, work is play is kids is adults is fear is fun is friends is lovers. And while women can be predators too — Gartner quotes one study in which 60 percent of the victims were abused by men, 29 percent by women, 11 percent by both — it’s men who make up the bulk of the predators. And these men tend to present themselves the same way.
In December, writer Mark Harris tweeted about an incident with Bryan Singer in 1997, around the time the media was questioning whether teen boys had been asked to disrobe on the set of Apt Pupil. Harris was one of the few gay editors at Entertainment Weekly in the room at the time and recalled how unusual it was to hear Singer openly disclose his sexuality. The filmmaker then said, according to Harris’ paraphrase: “For anyone who wants to take down a gay director in Hollywood, what is the worst thing you can throw at them? That they go after kids. So if anything, I would be EXTRA careful about how I run a set.” In a less permissive decade, this “landed” for the young journalist, who called it, “The perfect way to use your own sexual identity and someone else’s to play them.” Singer was not the only one to use this line — Spacey would attempt it 20 years later to less success — and Harris was not the only one to toe it. Says Henry, “The predators were hiding under the banner of homosexuality.”
No one wants to be the one to accuse a gay man of being a pedophile, particularly in Hollywood, which is supposed to be progressive. So in The Atlantic, Singer is described by one victim as a boundary crosser, while Michael Jackson was recently characterized by his family, in response to Leaving Neverland, a documentary about his alleged abuse of two boys, as “an easy target because he was unique.” Henry says a number of parents of abuse victims she has encountered have been shocked because they just thought the perpetrator was gay. Similarly, the parties full of young boys were read simply as gay events with a couple of twinks thrown in. Even then, parents weren’t sending their kids to them so much as their kids were making friends at school who had connections to the men hosting. These hosts were predominantly publicists, agents, managers, and acting coaches (Henry described them as “vendors” of child actors) who insulated more famous attendees from responsibility. They were also protected by the gender of their victims.
While women are likely to think they’ve been abused because they’re women, men are likely to believe abuse makes them no longer men. “The ideal man is not a victim, is resilient, is in charge of sexual situations, enjoys sex whenever its offered, particularly by a woman,” says Dr. Gartner. The co-founder of MaleSurvivor (formerly the National Organization Against Male Sexual Victimization) explains that because of this mythical ideal, boys find it hard to identify their own abuse, particularly if they’re attracted to their abuser’s gender. “They’re more likely to see that as sexual initiation, at least initially,” he explains, “and often they’ve been told that by the predator as well.” The myths abound: if you are a boy, you should be able to stop it (especially if you are a man, even more especially if you are an ex-footballer like Terry Crews); if you are gay you asked for it; if you become gay, it’s because of it; if you were aroused, it’s because you wanted it; if you were a victim, you will be a perpetrator. None of this is true. But it is true that alleged Singer victim Victor Valdovinos impregnated a girl at 16 to prove he was a man. It is true that alleged Singer victim Cesar Sanchez-Guzman appeared to think telling his parents was equivalent to coming out. It is true that alleged MJ victim James Safechuck describes himself at 10 as having a “sexual couple relationship.” It is true that alleged MJ victim Wade Robson “couldn’t believe” for the longest time that what had happened to him at the age of seven was bad.
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Two years before Corey Haim died, he made me feel uneasy. I chose to interview him knowing he had a history of drug addiction, but I didn’t expect him to be that bad. He looked destroyed — sallow, unintelligible, uncomfortable. In the end, all I wanted was to get away; I’m ashamed now by that impulse then. Because that impulse is what protects men like the one that — according to Corey Feldman — raped his best friend when he was just a kid. A man like that has fun at the expense of a child, leaves the child in pieces, and the child spends the rest of their life trying to put those pieces back together as we gawk at the cracks.
“It is very common for both boys and girls to become addicted or compulsive in ways that include sex, include drugs, include alcohol,” says Gartner, “and a lot of it has to do with soothing the pain.” The more you are abused, the worse your prospects — the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services reports that boys who have more than six bad experiences have a more than 4,000 percent chance (that is not a typo) of using intravenous drugs. It’s hard not to think of the number of child actors who were undone by substance abuse — Edward Furlong, Brad Renfro, Nick Stahl, Brian Bonsall, River Phoenix — without wondering what preceded this. It’s hard not to think that the deaths of so many men were because of the men they met when they were boys. It’s hard not to think that we haven’t come very far.
Five years ago Michael Egan filed a lawsuit against Bryan Singer in which he claimed that the filmmaker had assaulted him numerous times when he was just 15. His lawyer held a Gloria Allred-style press conference, but not long after dropped Egan as a client, claiming Egan had lied about two men who were not Singer. In an unrelated incident around the same time he withdrew his suit, Egan was convicted of fraud. “The collapse of the Egan case was a huge win for Singer, creating the lasting impression that the director had been exonerated,” Alex French and Max Potter wrote in The Atlantic. People believed Egan was a liar, which fit the figure he cut — alcoholic, separated, bankrupt, fraudulent — which made him appear less credible than a clean cut success story like Crews or Rapp. But the funny thing is, all of those things that hamper Egan bolster his alleged history of abuse. According to the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being, more than half of the kids — boys and girls — who are mistreated are at risk for emotional issues, behavioral issues, substance abuse, and delinquency. And the men who spoke to The Atlantic about Singer say they were left “psychologically damaged, with substance-abuse problems, depression, and PTSD.”
It was being part of a support group, which Egan found through a producer on An Open Secret, that encouraged him to file his suit. Men who end up disclosing later on are liable to be triggered by the realization that they have ruined their life with substances or that they have been unable to maintain any relationships (Gartner notes that they are “introduced to sex as something that happens in a power relationship where one exploits the other.”) Another trigger is having a kid of their own — this prompted the two men in Leaving Neverland to speak out — or that kid turning the age they were when abused. Media reports also help, though Gartner says it’s “early days” to tell whether anything has really changed. While Rapp was empowered by the #MeToo movement, abuse can only begin to be dismantled once we acknowledge its nuances with respect to race, sexuality, disability, and also gender. And that involves hearing out all victims, including boys and men. “What one hopes for is that a man would be able to make it less powerful,” says Gartner, “put it in the corner of his consciousness and only bring it out when it needs to be.” Once he talks, the prognosis varies, but to talk is to address — a boy can’t change his history, but it doesn’t have to define his future.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.